Confessions of a Box Office Manager: Technical teething problems
Sometimes change can lead to hilarious results
Change is a funny thing, and implementing change can be tricky. Watching the news footage this week of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his team demonstrating the way live venues might work in terms of audience safety and hygiene in the wake of the pandemic made me very proud to be part of an industry that is so willing to adapt and adjust to get back on its feet again.
At least, it's willing to adapt NOW...
It wasn't always thus, although admittedly we've never faced anything quite like COVID-19 before. I was a junior part of the box office team in one of the larger theatre chains back in the 1990s, when a new management regime came in and tried to implement some fairly major changes to procedures right across the company and, boy, did they have their work cut out for them! Just from a box office point-of-view, they were faced with a gaggle of managers who might charitably be described as "old school" ...but who could just as easily be referred to as obstructive, closed minded and downright hostile. Not that they weren't lovely, if acerbic, people on a personal basis...but they were prepared to fight their corners and call out anything and everything they felt didn't work properly or which challenged their fragile, somewhat archaic status quo. The slightest teething trouble in the new way of doing things constantly threatened to tip over into a full scale battle between the obstreperous elders and a brisk but increasingly bewildered new management team. It was a stressful but entertaining time to be working!
The first thing to change was the computerised ticketing: out went a plodding, monochrome system which looked like something Noah might have used had he been ticketing the procession of the animals onto the Ark. In came a gleaming technicolour new edition that was as efficient as it was aesthetically pleasing. It was also infinitely easier to use. The problem here though was that we had all got so used to the more complicated, less streamlined precursor that it took a lot of UNlearning to realise that you could now, with two clicks, achieve something that previously used to involve multiple manoeuvres and changes of screen. You might have thought this would have been embraced by the Old Guard -all of whom had started in box office when it was manual plans, paper tickets and pencils- but not a bit of it: they relished every opportunity to point out flaws in the new system, and took great delight in telling customers when something went wrong: "we've got new computers you see, dear, and they're utter crap!"
I remember the CEO storming out of a catch-up meeting in our theatre with all of the firm's box office managers about a fortnight down the line and looking like he was going to cry...or punch somebody. He had to come past the box office where I was on the window at the time (the new system had unhelpfully frozen at this point, as I remember, so my queue was stretching into infinity) and I waved cheerfully at him; he responded by horizontally drawing his forefinger grimly across his neck while shaking his head sadly. This was in marked contrast to the BOMs who sashayed triumphantly out of the meeting room minutes later, loudly making plans to reconvene in some Soho Gin Palace or other to drink the rest of the day away, having put the managerial upstart in his place.
These changes were fairly small fry compared with what we are likely to be dealing with soon
Of course they may have felt that they'd won that particular battle but they didn't stand a chance in the long game. That computer system stayed and was upgraded, with varying degrees of success, over the years, before being replaced with an even more advanced one. Most of the affronted BOMs have long since retired on the kind of pensions that I can only dream about.
One casualty of changing the computers however was that we lost our rudimentary in-house messenger system. Remember this was in the days before mobile phones and text messaging, so it was a huge novelty to have a way of sending private messages to one's colleagues screens while they were working. You had to be careful though, as if you didn't carefully type in who you were sending a message to, it would get sent to everybody in the company who happened to be logged on at that point. I fell victim to this myself once, when having a bit of a row with a friend working in another box office: over messenger, I told him to "F—- off" ...unfortunately, I was in such high dudgeon that I had forgotten to add his username to the top of the message and so everybody got it including the CEO and all management. What followed was a pretty excruciating meeting to explain myself... Box office staff also misused messenger to try and make each other laugh while on the window. For example, if you had a particularly attractive customer, you'd frequently find the message "PHWOOOOAR!" popping up on your screen as you were attempting to sell their tickets, or if your customer was particularly eccentric or annoying, you'd get something like "I don't think much of yours" or "Get your coat, you've pulled" sent by a mischievous colleague. If you corpsed (giggled) then the first round in the pub after work would be on you.
The bars and merchandising systems going computerised were the next level of warfare that senior management had to prepare for. Up until this point, many West End theatre bars didn't even have a proper till, and the cost of your interval drinks would have been manually totted up with a notepad and pencil by one of the long serving bar staff, some of whom stayed in the same job in the same theatre for up to forty years, and most of whom were great characters, far more flamboyant than any of the actors on the stage.
Again though, this new system that should, theoretically, have made their lives a lot easier was treated with extreme mistrust. I remember one night hearing the sound of cheering coming from the direction of the Stalls bar -this was before the public had been allowed into the building- and asking the harassed-looking house manager what was happening. "Oh, the computerised tills in the bars have gone down again" he muttered, "and they're excited about getting to add and subtract. The bastards."
One wonders what they would have made of the ‘Click And Collect' system that's likely to be in place for the foreseeable future. Not very much, I would imagine.
Getting staff trained up on electronic systems in the kiosks was a lot less troublesome, I believe, possibly because the merch sellers tended to be a younger crowd, usually out-of-work creatives and performers, rather than career front-of-house staff, and they were up for anything that streamlined their working hours.
Ultimately though, these changes were fairly small fry compared with what we are likely to be dealing with soon. However, the important thing right now is to get the industry that we love back on its feet. Personally, I didn't choose a career in theatre so that I could sit on my sofa worrying. As Lord Lloyd Webber said this week: "Give us a date, mate!"