Confessions of a Box Office Manager: When fake news causes mayhem
I'd just got off the tube this morning when my phone pinged at me (well, I say 'pinged', my 'new message' notification is actually Eponine's blood-curdling warning scream from near the end of act one of Les Mis, can't remember which cast…). Ignoring the looks of alarm and disgust, I keep my head down, make a mental note to put my phone on silent when I get chance and head towards work. The thing is, the messages kept coming… scream after scream after bloody scream… it's like there's a massacre going on in my trouser pocket.
At stage door, I whip my phone out. Twelve texts. It's not a family emergency as the sources of all these messages are completely random: close friends, a couple of relatives. But mostly from acquaintances that only get in touch when they want something (you know the type: "Hi babes, I know we haven't spoken in over three years, but I really miss you. Any chance of tickets to your show on Saturday night? I need eight. Smooches.")
The first text is mystifying: "Congrats. OMG" and a bunch of exclamatory emojis. I think this may be meant for someone else, as the only congratulations-worthy thing I've done recently is getting through last week without smacking anybody.
The next one is from a real party animal chum – "WTF dude. Get me in" – sent very early this morning, so chances are he was off his face when he did it.
My sister next – she isn't prone to hyperbole, but… "Wow. You must be so excited. Can you reserve me seats, I know they'll be full price but not premium PLEASE!" (always the people you love the most that are happy to pay for tickets, whereas acquaintances expect freebies…) All the other texts seem to be of a similarly congratulatory tone. Except one, which is simply two words: the name of a very VERY big star, somebody I have been borderline obsessed with for decades. What is going on?
Inside the theatre, the stage door keeper is doing battle with an unusually animated switchboard. Usually at this point of the day he is face down in The Sun, barely acknowledging anybody passing.
"HOLD!" he screams charmingly into his phone receiver, and stares at me. "Have you heard the news, mate?"
"Next star of the show. It's that bird you like. The one with the big mouth. That's why they're all calling. One of those gits announced it this morning on Twitter. Not Baz, somebody else."
He has just described the performer I was texted about… it's starting to make sense. I feel a bit, ok a LOT, excited. We knew a cast change was imminent but the producers haven't hinted at who was coming in. Blimey, if this is correct… Suddenly I love my job!
When I get into the box office, Robbie, the most showbiz-obsessed of all the clerks, is already logged in and looking extremely happy.
"Have you heard?!" he pants.
"Yes, but I'm trying not to think about it. This news hasn't come from an official source so…"
"She'd be great though wouldn't she? Like, proper stunning…"
"Well yes, yes she would. I need to get hold of somebody in the production office."
I log in to my email and there's nothing from the producers although there are half a dozen emails from various industry friends all asking if the news is true and if I can hold them some seats. This is the most stimulating morning I've had in ages and it's not even ten o'clock.
I find the original announcement on Twitter. My heart sinks a bit. It has come from somebody who often predicts wrongly; a bit of a loose cannon who doesn't actually work in the industry, but has made a lot of enemies within it, an occupational hazard when you fire off misinformation then refuse to retract it or even apologise. Nevertheless this person has a lot of followers – as does the star tagged – so there's quite a bit of online interaction: superfans threatening to gouge their own eyes out if this is a hoax or offering to donate vital organs in return for tickets, that sort of thing.
I'm about to call the production office when the internal and external lines ring simultaneously, and I get another screaming text notification. It's a cacophony, exacerbated by Robbie manically jumping up and down in front of me, fast-clapping like a demented flamenco dancer.
"Instead of doing that, why don't you answer one of these phones," I bellow.
Crestfallen, Robbie picks up the external line and I feel a bit rotten: his enthusiasm is pure gold. I used to be similar, but a very long time ago. I'll buy him a coffee later on. Actually, if this news is true, I'll take him out for lunch.
I answer the other phone.
"Babe it's Saskia" (she is from the production office, and she doesn't mess about. I love her. I'm actually a bit terrified of her too.)
"Hi Saskia" I answer, aware that I am suddenly standing up straight, "how are you?"
"Furious… Do. Not. Believe. What. You. Read."
"Wait I haven't finished… On. Twitter." My heart sinks "Donotbelievewhatyoureadontwitter. Yeah?"
"So it's not true then?" Robbie stares at me askance then looks like he might cry.
"Nope. We had a meeting. She wanted more money than the national debt. End of. Where that little sod got his info from I don't know."
"Ah right, I'll make sure everybody here knows."
"Do you want to know who we are getting instead?" I don't really care at this point but I'd better sound invested.
"Yes please! Who?"
"Obviously, this is strictly entre nous, but it's…." And she names somebody from the telly that I can't actually picture. I feel like hanging up on her (not that I'd dare) "I think she'll bring something really fresh and unusual to the table. Don't you?"
I want to say "I don't even know who that it is" but instead I say "oh she's marvellous" and resolve to Google her as soon as Robbie isn't looking.
Saskia rings off and I get on with answering the messages, and draft an email to all staff telling them that the rumours aren't true. It's amazing though how an innocuous, ultimately inaccurate, social media announcement can be so provocative. I get Robbie and myself huge consolation coffees, since it's a bit early for wine, and have a look at our soon-to-be-announced star online. She has great teeth, and a penchant for dating sportsmen.
What a strange morning… I feel as though I've gone from the epicentre of showbusiness fabulousness to despondency in less than an hour. But, hey, nobody died.