Confessions of a Box Office Manager: Life without theatre is pretty darn boring isn't it?
Our box office mole has to go back into their currently shut down box office
Okay, is everybody as fed up with all this as I am?
Back in March, when our merry little ticketing crew bade a temporary farewell to each other (with lots of hugs and kisses cos, hey, we're theatrical, plus we assumed we could back then), we thought we'd all be back in work within six weeks to three months. WRONG. Here we are staggering uncertainly into the autumn with no concrete idea of when our show will be back on, or when we'll properly see each other again apart from a series of increasingly despondent and drunken group Zoom chats.
I was in town the other day to do a bit of shopping and, because I like torturing myself, I thought I'd take a little stroll past some of the theatres I've worked at over the years. They're all ‘dark' of course now thanks to Covid-19 but blimey, if I was a bit low before, I felt a whole lot worse after seeing the current situation outside several of these venues.
In at least three cases, the neighbouring hostelries have taken over all the theatres' pavement space, so there are pub tables and chairs set up in front of the boarded up entrance doorways and advertising displays. These (now universally ignored) hoardings show photos of performers, some of whom have packed up and left the city for the foreseeable future as they can no longer afford to live here, and proudly but pointlessly display critics quotes raving about a production you can't actually see until next year at the earliest, assuming the show in question survives. I know a pavement's just a pavement and the pubs are only taking advantage of the extra space, but it felt like a fittingly grim metaphor for the way the theatre industry has apparently been sidelined in the rush to reopen everything else.
For one messianic moment, I felt a bit like Jesus in that thrillingly bombastic section of Superstar where he smashes up the Temple because it's been turned into a den of thieves (or "a DEN of THIEEEEEEVES!" if you've got an enthralling rock falsetto). If you don't know what I'm talking about, then get thee to Regent's Park where the Open Air Theatre's thrilling JCS production is playing again until the end of September. Of course, I didn't actually smash anything up – although I might have done if any of those encroaching pubs had been branches of a certain ubiquitous chain, the name of which I won't mention – but I gave the assembled drinkers my best Paddington stare and sloped off, muttering bitterly.
It's equally unsettling inside the dormant theatres: recently I had to pop into ours to collect a few bits and pieces from the upstairs office. This involves crossing the actual stage itself, something I haven't done since mid-March despite having been into the building for meetings a couple of times since lockdown. I wasn't prepared for the emotional response I had to seeing the set of our show again: apart from the Safety Curtain being lowered into place, everything is exactly as it was at the final curtain call on Saturday 14th March, even down to the piles of confetti lovingly swept to the sides of the playing area. It really feels as though it's frozen in time, like a theatrical version of the rediscovered Titanic (minus the water damage, of course).
Realistically, and on a more positive note, the theatre will bounce back eventually: it always does, having survived plagues, wars and the Puritans...and it is so heartening to see the pockets of theatrical activity springing up all over the country, most of it outdoors (for now). However, from a purely box office point-of-view, we are likely to see significant, unwelcome but sadly necessary alterations in the way that we work, at least for the time being.
The main change, and you'll have noticed this if you've booked for any of the theatrical treats currently playing, is that the time of the physical paper/card ticket is practically up. We've been steadily moving in that direction for a number of years anyway, but Covid-19 and the possibility of getting infected by touching hard surfaces has accelerated the advancement of the e-ticket immeasurably. I don't know about you but, at least until I worked in the industry, I used to love keeping all my tickets stubs as souvenirs. Well, not anymore.
Only the tiniest of skeleton box office crews will henceforward be required to "take the house in" as there will be nothing to give out, since everyone will have their tickets on their smartphones, and most of the ticket agents already have remote access to the online plans and can sell directly. I anticipate that, when we finally reopen, we'll just need one person in the box office to troubleshoot... no more camaraderie and giggles, and almost no interaction with the audiences. Goodness knows, the general public can be aggravating at times, but I am now at the point where I am badly missing even the most obstreperous customers.
I do hope that, long term, something like normal staff levels will return as this impersonal approach to customer service – if you can even call it that – will not suit all patrons. It sure won't suit those of us who work here! If things continue like this for the rest of the year and performances remain suspended, Christmas 2020 could be the first one in over a decade where I get to spend Boxing Day with my family. That might be a nice change, but I'll have to limit my alcohol consumption: it's supposed to be a time of good cheer ...and nobody wants a lachrymose, deeply embittered theatrical at the feast! On the other hand, it might be quite entertaining...
In the meantime, let's all hang in there and hope that a solution can be found soon. I've just been on a booking spree and have now got tickets (e-tickets!) to every ‘live' outdoor show I can get to while the weather still holds. Hope to see you there: life without theatre is pretty damn boring isn't it.