Confessions of a Box Office Manager: Ticket printing hell breaks loose

When our West End mole makes a slight communication error, all hell breaks loose in the foyer

West End mole
West End mole

Noooooo! I can not believe what has just been happening. Not after 50* years in the business. It's ridiculous. It's also somewhat embarrassing. The box office is inevitably going to end up on the show report for this evening (and not in a good way), and I may have to take tonight's duty house manager out for dinner in an attempt to mollify her. Assuming she makes it past the interval.

It's annoyingly silly really. Tonight is an untypically quiet midweek evening. That's not a crisis: it's May, notoriously a tricky month in the West End; the tourists aren't here in force yet and the Brits have gone crazy at the first hint of sun, hanging about outside pubs in case it's the last fine evening we get, instead of saturating themselves with theatrical culture.

So…the marketing company decided to release a hundred free seats to selected recipients to bulk out the house a bit. No problem. I allocated and printed out a batch of tickets that nicely filled a number of holes in the stalls plan. That afternoon I left them on the front desk, asking the clerks to distribute when said recipients arrive.

Also this evening we have a coach party of 80 booked in and the group organiser called a couple of days ago to say that the tickets hadn't arrived. I told him not to worry and that I would issue duplicates which he could collect from the box office on the night. They were coming in from the Midlands so weren't able to pick them up in advance, which works for us as it's never a good idea to have more than one set of tickets in circulation for the same seats much before showtime.

So… I'd also left these on the front window with instructions to the clerks to give them to the group leader…

You may be one step ahead of me at this point, but I'm going to tell you the whole sorry tale anyway.

During the afternoon I'd received a call from aforementioned Midlands group organiser to say that the original 80 tickets had now finally arrived and could they go in with those. I told him that unfortunately each ticket has a unique barcode on it that is recognised by the ushers' handheld zappers (I haven't a clue what the technical term actually is) and that once duplicates have been issued the barcodes on the originals become obsolete. Thus the bearers of those initial tickets wouldn't be able to get in.

I'm going to put my hand up here and admit that I'd forgotten to tell the window clerks about this conversation. However, can I also point out that we in the box office hadn't been alerted to the fact that this evening the front of house internet had randomly gone down (they're on a different system to us), which renders the zappers entirely useless, leaving the ushers to tear tickets like it was the 1990s or something. As it turns out, the group organiser from the Midlands ignored what I said and failed to pick up the duplicate tickets from the box office. His party had, it turns out, sailed straight in with the original tickets.

To further add to the confusion, one of the clerks… let's call him Dick, not his real name but certainly what I felt like calling him after it all kicked off… got his tickets confused and started enthusiastically handing out the Midland group dupes to the comp recipients. Here we are then, with the best part of 160 people trying to cram into around 80 seats.

The first I knew of it was when one of Dick's frontline colleagues called me in the upstairs office about five minutes before scheduled curtain up recommending that I head down to the foyer tout suite as "something a bit weird is going on".

I came downstairs to scenes of aggression and bewilderment. One woman was screaming at a clerk, a man was bellowing "It's just not worth it for free tickets, come on, Cheryl" before escaping into the night with his cohort in tow, while groups of ushers were standing around waiting to speak to box office, holding identical tickets in each hand and gazing from one to the other as though willing the seat numbers to change by the simple act of staring fixedly at them. The duty manager was stalking the sidelines yelling into her walkie talkie. I presume, or at least hope, it was about the fiasco unfolding around her. She's currently in the process of leaving her wife (who also works here) so you can't be entirely sure who she's screaming at, if I'm honest.

I spoke to one of the ushers, had a squint at the tickets he was holding, and realised what was happening. After a moment of panic-stricken nausea, I headed into the box office, commandeered one of the computers, looked up both the Midlands group booking and the account that the complimentary tickets had been put into. I then printed off several copies of both seating allocations and handed them to the waiting ushers. As the group had actually PAID it was obviously much more important that they were seated in their allocated positions. As a precautionary measure I also printed off a dozen extra comps in decent locations, in case of anybody getting shirty about being asked to move seats. I'll explain that to the production office tomorrow (wish me luck).

I then grabbed what was left of the group duplicate tickets, binned them – the last thing we need is any more of those being handed out to eager comp receivers – and headed into the stalls with the front of house staff and a clipboard (you gotta have a clipboard) to help sort out the chaos.

Actually it's not THAT horrendous down here; there are just a heck of a lot of people standing around looking confused, considering that the curtain is due to go up literally NOW. The groups organiser (I know it's him as he still has his lanyard on: I bet he now wishes he'd taken that off) is pinned up against a wall, being loudly harangued by a vision in cerise who keeps poking him in the chest and screeching "Buggered it up AGAIN haven't you!" I wonder what history she's got with him. I go over and introduce myself (he looks as though he might cry) and ask him to please identify the people in his group – as much as he can – so that we can seat them and get that damn curtain up.

On the whole, most of the inconvenienced ticket holders are happy just to get seated, although a couple of them ask me, politely, why this has happened. Inevitably, the real stroppery comes from aggrieved comp ticket holders who thought they were in row H but are ending up in P row. Needless to say, all, bar two, of those extra free tickets got used.

One wag grabs me by the arm as I'm on the way out to yell "I bet this is waaaaay more dramatic than the show!" I smile as indulgently as I'm able to, and waft/stagger away.

The show begins and I head back to the foyer box office where it's finally calm, although the team look bit shell-shocked, especially Dick. I apologise to them all that I hadn't been as clear as I should have been about the prospective issues with this evening's performance. Communication is key. I need to remember that. Even after 50* years in the industry.

We're about to close for the night when a lady comes bowling breathlessly in, waving her complimentary ticket slip at us and apologising for being late. We all gurn-smile at her like a bunch of people at the very end of their tethers (which we are) and hand her that final pair of well located freebies. Great that they won't go to waste (like we care, at this stage).

So…not the best night in the Box. Tomorrow I'll have to tell the powers-that-be why it didn't go smoothly, and be appropriately penitent… and that's fair enough. But hey, nobody died.

*– I have not actually been in box office for 50 years: it just feels as though I have after nights like this