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Guest Blog: Confessions of a Theatre Usher

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“Turn your phones off” or “no filming in the venue”. That’s what so many perceive as being Front of House (FOH) staff at a theatre. Stood there in their black and white uniforms, big smiles and friendly ways – as if those are the only job requirements.

After finishing working the job myself for five years, I’ve decided to take my hat off to the FOH teams and let you good folks know a little more about those we also refer to as ‘ushers’ and some of the things they have to deal with. You see, whilst on the outside it may look like all they do is smile, watch the show and then say goodbye, the reality is very different.

Here are some things you should know about a FOH staff’s everyday shift and a few pointers to help you help them keep that exterior friendly.
Oh yes, what a joy they are to deal with, and of course it’s the FOH staff who are the first ones to get it in the neck. I was called all sorts as were my colleagues by inebriated audience members. If they’re disrupting the show, it’s the FOH staff’s job to try and quiet them down - as you can imagine, that’s far easier said than done. When you have someone shouting "I can see the wires" as Mary Poppins flies over the audience or when they talk back to the actors, it can be annoying for all involved. With a smile and calm manner, the staff defuse the situation and return to their post (or the nearest loo to scream out their frustration). Because of their quick thinking, all is right with the world again and the lady in seat G7 can enjoy the rest of the show.

Now everybody knows that taking photos in a theatre during a performance is a big no-no. Many venues have signs all around the place to say just that... oh, and an announcement at the 30-minute bell, oh and another announcement just before the show. But for those patrons who don’t see or hear any of that (hmmm), it’s back to the FOH staff for a night of "chase the lights". And how they love that. It's so much fun running around an auditorium for two hours to find those rule-breakers. What’s even better is when others in the audience react to the poor usher by telling them to be quiet as they're trying to remove a camera off someone who does not seem to understand the words "no photos". On my last shift, I was pushed up the stairs by a patron for that reason. "You’re just trying to spoil my fun" or "You take your job too seriously", we're told. Well, of course they take their job seriously. The managers remind them every day that no photography is allowed - FOH staff don’t tell patrons to stop taking photos because they're bored. If you're at the theatre and think you'll try and sneak a few snaps, please don’t... it’s exhausting.

Seating issues
If it was as simple as entering the theatre and going straight to your seat, life would be wonderful. Only it’s not. Many theatregoers end up in the wrong seat and it's an honest mistake - except the ones who have re-seated themselves from the Grand Tier to the Stalls. Out comes the torch and into action the ushers fly. During a sold-out performance, and with latecomers wanting to take their seats that happen to be in the middle of an aisle and are currently occupied by the self-upgrading or confused, well, the FOH staff know how to play musical chairs better than anyone. However, once again, it’s the FOH staff that get yelled at by the row behind for obstructing their view of the show (they keep smiling though). If you see a staff member trying to move 23 people off one row, please don’t have a go at them. It’s not on their list of "fun things to do" either!

My favourite thing about working FOH. Some people are always going to be late, it can’t be helped, sometimes the buses and trains are delayed, sometimes traffic is really bad and that’s fine. The team will be ready to greet you when you arrive and take you to your seat. However, many producers apply a strict ‘Latecomers rule’ which means the FOH staff team are simply not allowed to take you to your seats until a certain point in the show. This is not the fault of the poor user so shouting at them and trying to barge in past them does not help. I’ve seen FOH staff reduced to tears because of this (but they’re still smiling). So please remember, if you are late and have to wait a few minutes before you are allowed in, it’s not down to the FOH team. Go and shout at the producers of the show... no really, please do.

All theatres have a staff of cleaners who do a wonderful job of keeping the venues looking fresh and tidy. However, in between a matinee and an evening performance, the auditorium needs to be cleaned in the space of sometimes as little as 30 minutes before the next audience come in. After a sold-out matinee, you can only imagine the state of the floor, crisps, sweets, ice cream tubs, snotty tissues.... all the good stuff. The FOH staff after one shift and before their next one have to pick up all that lovely rubbish by hand. Yes, all the junk produced by all the people in a 2000-seater has to be cleared away by the FOH team (not smiling so much now). And don't forget, that small amount of time between the two shows is also the staff’s only time to eat, smoke, reapply the smile etc. So, next time you're scoffing a tub of ice cream during a show, look back at the FOH staff member, he or she may be full of smiles, but inside they are dying... dying from the knowledge that they are about to spend 30 minutes on their hands and knees avoiding getting chewing gum stuck to their clothes just to pick up your detritus.

FOH don’t just work in the auditorium. They rotate from day to day, working in other areas such as the bars, kiosks, door etc. The bar is where all the fun really happens. On nearly every shift on a sold-out show, it’s a given that, at the interval, a line of 100 people will start tutting, yelling and shouting at the staff on the bar about being too slow... yes too slow at serving over 100 people in 20 minutes. Here's the thing: why not just ore-order an interval drink? That way, your drink will be ready for you with no waiting around at all. I used to let the painted smile slip when, on incoming, I would ask so many if they wanted to place an interval order. To their "no thanks" reply, I would warn them about how busy the bar will be. "It’s fine, we won’t be getting a drink at the interval," they declare. Then, what do you know, there's the same person at the interval yelling at you because they have been waiting for five minutes to get served. "I want to see your manager" or "why can’t you work faster" and many times some very nasty comments are thrown at the staff. Please remember, 20 minutes is not a long time to serve all those thirsty customers and the staff (who work at warp speeds on the bar) can only go so fast. And here's a little tip: if you yell at them, they will purposely make you wait until you have calmed down or apologised (or maybe that was just me?)

Yes, that’s just a handful of things that ushers deal with in one night. I could talk about so much more, but I think you get the idea. Often, the staff will go home and hit things, scream in a field or simply rock in a corner from the evening's events. But after a good night’s sleep, they switch back on the Stepford FOH and they're ready to do it all again.

These young people working for very little pay keep the theatres running. Without them, you have no drinks, sweets, programmes, nobody to sort out your seating issues, escort latecomers in the dark, calm down the intoxicated people sat in front of you. They really are the lifeblood of the theatre.

So I salute the FOH teams, without whom, chaos would reign supreme. The next time you're at the theatre, please give them a smile - I can guarantee you will get one back.

- Craig Hepworth

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This article originally appeared on www.whatsonstage.com/northwest.

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