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.