What makes a welcoming theatre? It’s a subject much on the minds of those who have voted in the recent poll organised by UK Theatre, for as we all know, the experience of theatregoing doesn’t begin with curtain up, but from the moment you step through the front doors – that is, if they’re not so weighed down in glass, chrome and steel that you can’t even wrench open the darned things.
Having trodden the boards for forty years, and seen many more plays from the other side of the footlights (and there’s a quaint old –fashioned term you don’t hear much of in modern venues) I have my own views on the subject of what makes front of house a nice place to visit. In accordance with modern mores, many theatregoers now require gluten free muffins, glossy furnishings and state of the art hand driers as standard. Of course, simple touches can be just as important, like free jugs of water at the interval - a thoughtful gesture, just in case you don’t fancy the scrum at the bar (or can’t afford the often stupefying sums required for a glass of indifferent wine). Someone around to help in case of access needs. Sufficient seating in the public areas. All are welcome additions that can help your overall experience enormously.
But as we all know, the atmosphere of any public building is not dependent on the design, the clarity of the signage, or the organic credentials of its coffee bar, but on the attitude of the people who work there – the human interface between the public and the performers, in other words.
For me, it all starts with those who man the box office. Glassy stares, looks of impatience bordering on irritation if I take too long to select my seat, and a hauteur bordering on disdain as they hand over my ticket – I’ve experienced them all, and can testify that it doesn’t add to the gaiety of the encounter. Thankfully things are changing, and nowadays you’re much more likely to receive a friendly smile and a sincere expression of hope that you’ll enjoy the show; yet it’s worth reminding ourselves that box office staff, like actors, can sometimes succumb to complacency and boredom if they’ve been in the role for too long.
This maxim also applies to the attitude and competence of others who work front of house. I’m sure we’ve all experienced occasions when a helpful or well-timed intervention by a house manager or an usher can make all the difference and transform our visit; and I sampled this at first hand recently during a trip I to made to Southwark Playhouse, a venue that may be short on facilities but which has a big heart. This rackety but decidedly friendly venue in south London was hosting a new rock musical called Wasted, and very fine the show was too, even if at the interval I mentioned to my friends that, being old and crusty, I was having trouble hearing some of the lyrics.
As it turned out, a member of staff overheard my lament, and within seconds had set me up on my mobile phone with a special app whereby I could get a simultaneous transcript of the lyrics on my screen during the action. Her help was as illuminating as it was unexpected. As I pointed out to her at the time, I always thought the idea of live theatre was to encourage you not to look at your phone during the action; but even this universal truth, it seems, is now up for grabs. Having my own personal subtitles allowed me to enjoy the evening even more. Best of all, I felt looked after.
So let’s hear it for all those who work front of house. Their contribution to the experience of theatregoing may be less showy than that of the performers up there onstage, but in their own quiet way, it is just as important.