Front of House

One area I have been involved in either directly running or indirectly supervising nearly everwhere I have worked is the front of house. Depending on where you are, this phrase can encompass both the box office and house management or just house management. Today I wanted to focus just on house management.

Because box office handles money, the area is usually given the attention it is due. In the course of attending performances though it has seemed that the whole concept of house management is limited to instructing people to smile, hand out programs and point to the restrooms. This may be okay for the spring high school musical which only happens once a year, but anyone doing performances on a regular basis owes it to their audience to have formal processes in place.

Some theatres I have worked at have required the front of house staff to be certified in CPR and First Aid. I believe in certain categories of theatres in New York City it is required by law. This is one of the best indicators of how important the training of a house staff can be. If there is an emergency, they are in a position of being the first representatives of the organization on the scene. How they act and what they are able to do reflects most on the institution.

Even if it is not feasible to have all your ushers trained in CPR, there should be a procedure established to deal with emergencies. If there is problem who should be called? This doesn’t mean just dialing 911, but if you are on a college campus do the campus police need to be called, do you call the managing director, etc? Where is the phone that is used? Is it accessible? In some theatres the box office is closed up by the second act. If that is where the phone is and no one has been given a key, lives could be in danger. How do you communicate with the stage manager and performers that the show needs to halt to allow paramedics to enter in the next 3 minutes?

If there is a fire who makes an announcement? What doors are opened and where are ushers stationed to direct people outside? Are there enough flashlights on hand to address this situation?

If the power goes out who goes on stage with a flashlight to make an announcement while someone else calls the power company to determine how long the delay might be. What do you tell people about the refund policy if the show can’t go on?

In the course of my career I have been fairly lucky and had no fires, a couple heart attacks/strokes, a number of trip/falls and a few power outages. In all cases I was glad that I knew the procedure of handling and reporting these problems.

House manager and usher training is, of course, not all about emergencies, but the more mundane task of good audience relations. Knowing who to call to adjust the heat or air conditioning isn’t as crucial as calling 911 but it is important to the audience. The same is true of knowing what house seats are available to alleviate ticketing problems.

Their role of the front of house staff starts before the audience even arrives. Among the things they should be doing before the theatre opens is checking the cleanliness of the facility.

Even if you have a cleaning crew, it is useful to have ushers checking the lobby, restrooms and seating area for garbage that might have been dropped since the cleaning people were there. Burned out light bulbs should be noted, cigarette receptacles checked, trash emptied and bags replaced, front stoop swept, banners and signs fixed so they hang straight, etc.

It is very important that the front of house staff has access to cleaning supplies. It may be a revolting job, but often they are the ones called upon to wield a plunger in a toilet and a mop to clean up toilet overflow or vomit. Unfortunately, I have been faced with these types of emergencies far more often than heart attacks and power outages. I mastered the manuever of holding a can of air freshener at my thigh and spritzing as I passed through a crowded lobby by necessity.

Once the audience arrives ushers should be attentive to patrons and not focussed on talking to each other. Those who look lost or confused should be approached and aided. In many cases there isn’t enough seating in the lobby and folding chairs need to be brought out for people with mobility difficulties while they await the opening of the theatre.

Once the theatre does open ushers need to be pleasant, attentive and know how to accurately direct people to their seats. There should be a sufficient number of ushers stationed throughout the theatre to aid patrons. (I always found a minimum of 2 ushers per door with and additional 1 per every 100 seats in the theatre to be a pretty good rule of thumb. It provides a little flexibility if some people don’t show up.)

Once the show does start, ushers with flashlight should be strategically placed around the theatre and near the doors to aid in the arrival/departure of those needing to use the restrooms. This is one of the most difficult things I have tried to implement because inevitably the usher becomes involved in watching the show even if it is the 80th time they have seen it and miss the fact that someone is stumbling up the aisle and crashing out the doors.

There should also be a sufficient number of ushers in the lobby to help with late seating after the show starts. Before the appropriate interval for seating arrives, they should instruct the patrons about what is going to happen when they enter the theatre. I don’t know how many times I have been watching a show when the usher started instructing people after they entered the dark, quiet room.

If there is a particularly large number of people to seat, they should be lined up in reverse seating order (People for row M followed by those for J, G, E, B, A) so that the people can be “dropped off” as the group makes their way forward. Again, seems logical, but I have seldom seen it instituted unless I suggested it. I think it is because the ushers themselves share a perception that the job they are doing doesn’t take any thought.

After late seating has been taken care of, ushers in the lobby should be watching for people returning from the restroom so they can get the door for them. Not only is it a sign of good service and attention, but it prevents the door from making too much noise as it closes.

Intermission and the end of the show people are attentive, open and close the doors, etc and then help clean up at the end of the night.

One of the most important tools in Front of House Management is the end of performance report. Copies should be distributed to the administration and maintenance. Often stage management receives a copy as well. This is the way incidents are recorded and the status of the show is communicated to people who weren’t present. Often it lists what ushers didn’t show up, problems with the physical plant that need to be addressed, time the show and intermission started and ended, audience complaints, medical emergencies, if actors are wandering the lobby during the show, if there are a large number of people consistently arriving late, etc.

All this information helps people make decisions about how general operations and performances need to be run. Does the theatre need to recruit more ushers and train them better? Should the thermostat be moved away from an exterior door? Should alternate directions be provided so that people can avoid traffic congestion?

The front of house area is integral to the success of a performance venue because the response to emergencies and audience concerns rests so heavily upon this area. Providing at least key staff members with the training and information they need to address these concerns is essentially a necessity.

Board Questions

A month or so ago, I noted BoardSource.org as a resource for board related questions such as how to form one and what it means to be a board member. I wanted to revisit it and take a closer look at what it offers.

While portions of the webpage like the Topic Papers are only available to members ($137/yr, $250 for 2 years), there is still plenty of guidance provided in other areas. One of the services they provide are examples of “governance in the news” where they list a news story and then provide a brief commentary on the implications of the story.

The Q&A section is fairly large and briefly covers a wide range of topics. I thought I would summarize some of the contents just to give readers an idea of some of the considerations that go into non-profit board service.

Assessment, Effectiveness, Strategic Planning-These three sections deal with questions about the board assessing its effectiveness as well as how to evaluate the executive staff member.

Board Development and Composition/Structure-These areas deals with mission/value statements, effective board retreats, board size, term length, diverse membership without tokenism and the governance/nominating committee. The composition area also provides statistics about how many minority and female board members there are in the US.

Board Meetings-This is a large area of the website dealing with everything from how to run a meeting, how often to run them, sunshine laws, parlimentary procedure/Robert’s Rules of Order, attendance and minute taking.

Compensation-This section deals with the rare case of board member compensation (non-profit board members do not get paid, unlike for-profit members), doing business with board members and IRS sanctions for exploiting non-profit status.

Financial Issues-A very detailed and very important section that deals with audits, finding an auditor, questions a board should ask about finances and about audited procedures, investment policies, endowments, unrelated business income tax, assessing the budget.

Fundraising-Another big, crucial area that covers questions like: “Should board members be required to make an annual contribution” (and how many organizations do require it?), restricted grants, best solicitation methods, donor recognition, what foundations look for in board governance, case statements and fundraising resources.

Legal Issues-Still another important area for boards. Here they deal with conflict of interest, ethics, proxy voting, Director and Officer Insurance, Form 990, lobbying and political action committees, laws governing non-profits, sunshine laws and finding a lawyer and insurance agent.

Nonprofit Sector-This is just a general information area on non-profits. Talks about what they are, the difference between 501 (c) (3), (4) and (6) status, finding college courses in non-profit management, researching financials of non-profit orgs, etc.

Organizational Issues-Basically covers making the decision to become a non-profit and the paperwork and issues to be addressed to implement that plan.

Recruit and Orient- This section deals with deciding what type of people (profession-wise) will give your board depth, questions to ask potential members, information you collect from members, courting new members and whether to have board member contracts.

Role and Responsibility- Very important section, especially for those who have never served on a non-profit board. This area discusses differences between governing and advisory boards, why non-profits need boards, what to do if you don’t agree with the board decision, duties of a board chair, board member sabbaticals, disruptive board members and benefits of board service.

There are also sections (names are self-explanatory as to the contents) on Board/Staff relations, Board Chair/CEO relations, Roles of Committees and Canadian Nonprofit resources.

As I mentioned, the answers aren’t very detailed, but they do provide guidances as to where to find specific answers. The Q&A section would be valuable in providing a potential board member a fairly thorough overview of what non-profit board service involved.

Bloomsday or Doomsday?

On occasion I have had some crises of faith regarding whether I belonged working in the performing arts. However, I have never had a day when it seemed events were conspiring to tell me to find another line of work as I did yesterday. June 16 being Bloomsday provides a nice rhyme for the title of this entry. However, if you find James Joyce’s writing style to be strange, it might be an apt comparison because the day was rather strange.

I will keep names anonymous and details very general because there are some very nice people working hard to get me a job and I don’t want to seem ungrateful for their efforts.

It all started last week when I was offered a job by a gentleman at Organization A. It was a nice offer at what appears to be a very exciting place to work. However, I had an interview set for June 16 with Organization B which really sounded exciting and captured my imagination to some degree. I was sort of torn between putting Org A off until I could interview at Org B and the idea that it might do a disservice to Org B if I interviewed there knowing I had a job offer elsewhere.

I make every attempt to deal fairly openly and honestly with people. I try not to cynically play people off against each other to exploit a situation only for myself. In the end though, being practical and slightly paranoid, I decided I couldn’t official count on having the other job until I got it in writing.

It was fortunate that I took this stance because the next person up the hierarchy at Org A called me and offered me the job at significantly less salary. Apparently the person who offered me the job went on vacation without noting the salary I had been offered. Much to the superior’s credit, he resolved to personally work on getting me the salary I had been offered.

Meanwhile, I planned my trip to Org B in earnest. I was still intrigued by the opportunity and knew now I was correct in not counting my chickens too early. The trip to Org B was 2.5 hours but I gave myself 3.5 in case of traffic. Worse came to worse, I got there early and wandered around the neighborhood and reviewed my notes for the interview.

About 1.5 into the trip, my car broke down. The really crappy part was that I had taken my car in last week because I heard a sound that implied this would happen. The garage told me I was wrong, the problem was elsewhere and didn’t actually look in the place I felt it originated. However, I was right and a squeak turned into a crunch as my wheel bearing fused to the spindle and I went from 65 to 0 pretty quickly. It took me 4 hours to get it towed and fixed.

By that time Org B didn’t feel it was worth my coming down and said they would try to reschedule. I don’t hold much hope of actually landing the job though. I limped back home, depressed.

Once home I got an email from Org A saying they were sending my appointment before the chief executive for approval. Since I was told the chief executive had to approve the higher salary offer, I found reason for optimism.

Then I got a call in the evening that informed me that the position approval might be delayed slightly as the board had fired the chief executive and it might take the interim replacement a little bit to sort things out.

I have always thought of Fate as a subtle force, but after a day like that, it is difficult not to envision someone really yanking hard on the strings.

Useless Meetings Part 2

Yesterday I addressed a monograph on the value of conferences in the pursuit of developing cultural policy. The authors noted that generally, with the exception of really disorganized groups, meetings of this sort were not terribly valueable. My last entry looked at the barriers to success, today I want to review the solutions the authors suggest.

I should amend my former statement a little–the authors believe that conferences don’t contribute to the formation of policy currently. They do suggest ways to remove the aforementioned barriers so that constructive work might result. Among them are:

-“Build and foster policy communities within art and culture. Consider the creation of a convening authority an independent body, or honest broker, that can support special forums (what we are calling “policy thrusts”) to bring together different parts of the cultural sector to engage in focused and deliberate dialogue and to move from strategy and problem identification to consensus building, action plans, common research needs, and coalitions around pressing policy problems.”

-“Define problems, set agendas, develop policy alternatives and reform government services and programs. Arts leaders should encourage foundations and governments to create taskforces, working groups, and special commissions to advise and interject in policy conversations at the local, state and federal levels.”

In this regard they suggest keeping the focus of the taskforces limited “not simply “the arts in San Diego,” for example, but a topic that can yield practical policy recommendations: for example, youth and creativity; quality of life; spaces for creativity; cultural districts; creative industries; and support for working artists,etc etc..”

-“Improve methods to document policy discussions at annual meetings.” This seems to be exactly what Andrew Taylor’s band of graduate students have been doing at the National Performing Arts Convention. In fact, the report explicitly suggests using graduate students to act as recorders of “all policy-relevant comments. By identifying these statements, tracking policy concerns and more systematically documenting what is discussed, association staff and the broader membership can better gauge the policy dimensions of a conference session.”

-“Offer professional training and development: policy education through workshops.” Since many cultural administrators aren’t practiced in the process of policy making, the authors suggest workshops that empower people with the tools to do so.

-“Organize policy roundtables” As I mentioned yesterday, one of the research findings of this study was that conference participants felt more was accomplished in informal discussions after a meeting than at the meeting itself. The authors suggest that such post-event gatherings should be organized to encourage discussion by those who can attend.

-“Diversify participants and panelists and publicize and promote cultural policy expert.” As mentioned yesterday, the roster of speakers at conferences has become increasingly insular of late. The authors encourage not only inviting government officials, but people from other industries who can provide insight about policy development.

-“Call attention to the policy dimension of meetings…In order to highlight the policy dimension of meetings and to help attendees identify policy-relevant conversations, associations might consider identifying a “policy track” at their annual meetings…A track is simply a set of conference sessions that fit within a general approach or topic area. Many sessions can be cross-listed under more than one track.”

-“Conduct formal, in depth evaluations: National service associations should consider employing more ambitious evaluations – similar in scope to the recent pARTicipate2001 assessment in order to trace over a period of time the learning and action that results from a meeting. These evaluations can reveal how participants (from junior- to senior level arts professionals) approach meetings differently and how they take away from these gatherings.

-“Cross-sector initiative. Foundations interested in advancing cultural policy might consider supporting a special initiative to connect cultural policy to more established policy fields and help cultural leaders participate in broader policy discussions in their communities, states or regions.”

-“Integrate cultural policy concerns onto the agenda of other policy professionals. There is a wide gap between the professional planning community and the cultural policy community. Planners need to think more integrally about arts and culture, and they need to understand more fully how the arts can serve the goals of community/urban/regional planning.”

Some interesting things to ponder. I would certainly be more interested in attending conferences/meetings for policy education if people began to adopt this approach. (This is not to say I don’t enjoy attending conferences for the other educational and networking opportunities they offer. I have just been frustrated by a lack of what I perceived to be constructive, practical solutions.)

For all the material I directly quoted from the report, there is still plenty I omitted (specific examples of what the authors were referring to in many cases) so it would probably behoove anyone interested in policy formation to read the whole of the monograph.