Confessions of a Box Office Manager: A blast from the past
Our box office mole has a fresh encounter with a tricksy person from yesteryear
So what are you most looking forward to when theatre returns? A drink at the bar? A leaf through the programme? A credit card splurge at the merchandise stand? You'll be able to do any of these things from 4 July, assuming you can find a theatre building that is actually open. What you won't be able to do is watch an actual performance. A theatre without live shows....pretty pointless, no? However, that is the current state of affairs. It's extremely frustrating.
Although a number of West End venues have categorically stated that they will not be reopening until next year at the earliest, many others - ours included- are actively looking at ways to make attending a show as safe, hygienic and trauma-free as possible before then. Popping in to say hello earlier this week, I was struck by how much sanitising hand gel is around the theatre, literally at every doorway. By the time I left I had a slight headache from the smell of the alcohol (a first for me).
As the only access to the building is from rear of house at the moment, the stage door keeper checks everybody's temperatures as they enter, and if they're not happy with you, you're not coming in! I was surprised at what a simple process it is: they aim a thing that looks like a cross between a stapler and a gun at you and it reads how hot you are. I didn't initially realise what the device was, and thought that the lovely stage door keeper was about to spray me with water to cool down (it was an exceptionally hot day when I swung by) so had closed my eyes in anticipation of a drenching.
I must have stood there for well over a minute with my face all screwed up, not realising that he had gone back to watching daytime telly on his iPad, only off-handedly muttering "yeah you're normal" at me when I finally opened my eyes. Quite reassuring, and as far as I'm aware, this will be part of the process that audience members will go through when it's deemed safe to open our doors for performances. It literally takes a few seconds, which is great news. It was also news to me that I am "normal" (whatever that is).
Meanwhile, the ongoing process of ticket exchanges and refunds doesn't get any more interesting, but generally the public have been really affable and understanding. It's heartening to see how many people want to move their tickets back to a later date rather than just call it quits and get their money back.
One person who was neither terribly affable nor understanding however was a customer who I had actually known personally years ago. I was working through an extensive list of patrons of cancelled performances when I spotted her name. We send emails out to all bookers giving them the exchange or refund option and the majority get back to us promptly stating their preference. If we don't hear from them then once the performance has passed, I just crack on and refund the ticket money to their credit cards. This list I was looking at was the small number of customers where there was an issue, such as invalid card number or theatre token payment.
This particular woman worked with me as a clerk near the beginning of my box office career and she was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a nightmare. She made it abundantly clear that she felt the job was beneath her, and that it was a mere stepping stone on the road to something far bigger and better. She was condescending and rude to colleagues and customers alike, and it was frankly astonishing that she managed to survive her nine months of nastiness on the box office window without an infuriated patron either hurling a drink over her or launching themselves across the counter at her in a blind rage.
The rest of the team hated her almost from the get-go, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed that somebody that difficult must be suffering from some fairly big self esteem issues. In the end though, she defeated even me, after informing me yet again over lunch one day that I was stuck in a dead end job forever while she was destined for CEO status, at the very least. So, yeah, she really wasn't very nice. And she chewed with her mouth open.
There was much jubilation in the box office when she announced she was leaving, not just our theatre but the theatre industry as a whole. Looking back, it was a trifle hypocritical I guess, but I still organised a leaving collection for her (I've never seen copper coins hurled into a cup with such venom) and ended up buying the gift myself since few of our colleagues felt able, or inclined, to contribute. She left her present on the counter at the end of her last shift anyway so it was clearly much appreciated. I can't remember what it was, but if it was edible I'm pretty sure I ate it myself.
Anyway, when I saw it on the list my heart sank a little, and I'm ashamed to say that I had been putting off ringing her. On this particular day though, fortified by an enormous caffeine hit, I bit the bullet and made the phonecall. Usually I would introduce myself when the customer picked up the phone but, seeing as this was a special case, I thought I'd just give the theatre and show name, and hope to God she didn't recognise my voice.
Unfortunately, I got distracted by my flatmate coming home with a bag full of wine bottles so went into autopilot when she picked up – that unmistakable supercilious whine she has, yes it's definitely her – and gave my name anyway. Dammit! As luck would have it though, she didn't hear me or, more likely, didn't even remember me.
"What do you want?" she snapped, clearly still as adorable as ever.
"I'm phoning because there's an issue with the card number we've got on file and I wanted to get the correct one so that we can process the refund for you" (I should really have offered her an exchange but I just wanted to get this over and done with as quickly as possible).
"I was wondering when I'd hear from you. Not impressed, actually."
"Well, we did email you weeks ago."
"I don't read random emails. I'm busy."
"Right. Well, let's get this sorted then, shall we?"
The next couple of minutes were tortuous as she fumbled about trying to find her credit card, all the while making it abundantly clear that this was a huge imposition on her time. She rattled off the card number so fast I missed half of it.
"Could I ask you to read that once more please, a bit slower?"
"Oh for God's sake" she sighed before repeating the number again at exactly the same speed and in an identical bored monotone. Pretty sure we're not going to become Facebook friends at the end of this transaction.
After the third attempt, I finally had the right number but I made her read it out a fourth time just because I knew it would get on her nerves. Petty? Very.
We were all done when she asked for my name. I didn't have the presence of mind to make something up. Oh hell, here we go, I thought, mentally assuming the brace position.
She repeated my name back to me several times, as the penny was clearly in the process of dropping.
"Oh my God, it's YOU!" she exclaimed.
"Ha! Yes it's me. Hello!"
"Well well well. All these years later..." she purred, or rather, gloated.
"And you're still doing that! You never got out!"
I immediately felt my hackles rise, "actually, I never wanted to get out..."
"I'm a financial analyst" she screeched, not that I'd asked. "I own my flat outright, and I've got a holiday place in southern Spain, which I paid for in cash. And a boat. I wouldn't have got all this, if I'd stayed in theatre."
"I guess not."
"Ew! What must it be like, still dealing with the public?! Yuck, no thanks."
I thought about pointing out that I was now the manager not a clerk, but I decided not to waste my breath, plus it's insulting to box office clerks.
"I love it!"
"DO you?" she barked in disbelief.
"Absolutely, yes" (I do).
"Well, good luck" she scoffed, "from what I hear it's in a terrible state."
I'd had enough: "Thank you for those kind words. I'd love to chat over old times, but I'm pretty busy right now helping to prop up my fragile industry, which I am so proud to be a part of. The money will be back on your card within five working days. Goodbye, and stay well."
I hung up, proud of myself that I didn't sign off with "I hope your boat sinks."
I was just calming down when my flatmate swept in, stopped and stared at me.
"Are you okay?"
"Think so, bit rattled. What time is it?"
"Is that wine in the fridge cold enough yet?"
"Crack it open. I'll have mine in a pint glass."