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Stories of a House Manager “Oh No, I’ve left them on the piano…”

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I’ve just finished a duty as House Manager at the theatre for Peter Knapp's BARBER OF SEVILLE and standing there I thought of Whatsonstage and wondered how many readers think about the working of front-of-house.  Its 30 years since I was a full-time house manager but I have done my fair share of duties and love it. What can be better than seeing a load of individuals, couples, small groups and friends arriving expectant and excited for the evening ahead.  Greeting each other, getting a first drink down the hatch, and looking forward to delight and excitement. 

OK – occasionally there is disappointment, but in the main performances are good and audiences are generous – they want to have a good time, and they generally do.  And my job as House Manager, together with my volunteer colleagues, is to help them have a good time, keep them safe, and ensure they are fed and watered (well ice creamed and wined at least).

Next time you go to the theatre, look for the house manager.  They will probably be standing somewhere to one side of the action looking out over the bar or the foyer. Nowadays they’ll have a radio or an earpiece so they can keep in touch with backstage. And they will (we all hope) look calm.  That’s very important.  Their (our) job is to do nothing. Just to be there.  Available to you the customer, to our staff and volunteers, and to deal with any emergency. 

As a young theatre man I did a week of training at the Victoria Palace when the original production of Annie was playing. Up from Bristol for the week, sent by Stoll Moss Theatres, I shadowed the manager for two days and then he handed over front of house to me for a performance. I was terrified. It was in the days when every member of staff still lined up in the foyer before the show for a clean-hand inspection. I was 22…and they were grown-ups.   The manager told me a really important thing. He said his job was to do nothing and be available for anything.  That feels right for FOH work. 

Tonight for me it was a relatively uneventful night – one lady felt feint and had to lie down in the foyer with a glass of water, supported by her caring husband.  One couple were in restricted view seats and spotted a couple of vacant seats and wanted to move…well spotted.   And I had to find someone who’d left their lights on in their car – alerted by another patron. Fortunately my wailing number plates around the bar elicited a response from a customer who gratefully went back to the carpark to save her battery.

We are also the best instant marketing analysis consultants – ask the percentage of new attenders at the theatre on any night and we can tell you without a questionnaire or a data-analysis sheet…We just count the number of people who can’t find the loo.

We do get double bookings very occasionally, usually someone arriving on the wrong night for a run of a show.  My all time favourite when working at Bristol Hippodrome…before computers. We had a network of ticket agents. They had an allocation of tickets. We were selling for the national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.  One agent, on a Saturday morning, had lost the plan of their allocated tickets, so they made a new one and sold all the tickets for this popular show to shoppers that day.  Sadly the plan they had lost had already been completely sold out…so they had succeeded in selling every ticket in their allocation twice, without realising it, without telling us.  When JSC opened it was a sellout. But for a certain group of seats it was a double-sellout, and as house manager the customers just kept coming up, one after another with a double booking.  We couldn’t work it out.  We rushed to find available seats and corners to accommodate all the customers. Only a week or so later did we uncover that it was all down to one agent losing her piece of paper and printing another.

And why the rather cryptic title to this blog…well my all time favourite comment from a couple arriving at the theatre.  Man: Where are the tickets (looking in pocket), have you got them darling ?  Woman:  No darling, you had them.  Man:  Oh no…I've left them on the piano.  Woman: Darling…we don’t have a piano !!

So next time you go to the theatre look out for the House Manager…he or she is there for your enjoyment …sorry maybe I should re-phrase that.  And fellow house managers past and present – do tell me your stories…maybe we can make a book like the recent “overheard in a bookshop” publication.

Happy Theatregoing

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