Going to the theatre is supposed to be a fun, enjoyable experience. It’s a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of day to day life, even if it’s just for the afternoon or evening. It’s a chance to de-stress and immerse yourself in the drama that’s unfolding on stage. During the Christmas holidays, it can even be a treat for all the family with pantomimes and an invaluable way of keeping the kids entertained. However, this experience isn’t always enjoyable. For some people, an evening at the theatre begins long before the lights go down and continues after the audience have left. I’m referring to the invisible troopers in black, armed with the door wedges and torches, the people that carry those ice-cream trays like a cross: the front of house ushers.
During the holidays, I work part-time at my local theatre as an usher. Most people seem to think that this is the ‘easiest job in the world’, as all ushers have to do is let the audience in and sell some ice-creams, right? Not quite. Front of house is so much more than that. The woes of the job tend to fall under two categories: obnoxious customers and demanding directors with their pretentious actors.
To begin with, let’s examine the customers. One of the many lessons that I have learned from working as a front of house usher is that Harry Gordon Selfridge and Marshall Field were wrong; the customer is not always right. First of all, there are the ‘guests’ who think they’re entitled to free tickets and programmes because the lead in the show is their brother’s wife’s cousin or similar. These ‘guests’ sometimes have the nerve to push for other audience members to be moved so that they can have their better seats just because they didn’t book in time.
Then, there are the latecomers, the bane of every usher’s life. These customers will turn up five, ten minutes after the doors have closed and then become angry at the ushers when they can’t be let in straight away because the latecomers point hasn’t been announced yet. They’ll shout and rant about how ‘London theatres let people in straight away’, no matter how many times the ushers try to explain that every show is different, and that letting people in at the wrong time can be very distracting for the other audience members and actors on stage. But they still won’t listen and they’ll insist on sitting in their actual seats, even if it’s right in the middle and they have to walk past fifteen people to get to it.
Last but most definitely not least, there are the litterbugs. Do you ever wonder whose job it is to clean up the melted half eaten ice-creams, or the many other weird substances that people leave behind in auditoriums? Why, your friendly, neighbourhood usher, of course! Over the years, I have seen many delightful things such as bits of skin, used tissues, damp handkerchiefs and the colourful vomit from children who went a bit too wild over the ice-cream, to name a few. It’s safe to say that the job is never dull.
Now for the demanding directors. These kind of directors definitely need to be taken down a peg, or three. They’ll completely ignore ushers most of the time (in the theatre hierarchy, ushers are at the bottom, apparently), pretend they can’t see them when they’re giving notes to their actors on stage before a show and only talk to them when they need impossible errands to be done. Ushers will also get the occasional ‘shhhh’ and death glare from directors for breathing too loudly when they’re giving notes. Pretentious actors are exactly the same. I once came across an actress who was arrogant enough to be completely rude to an eight year old fan, just because she ‘knows’ Matt Smith. Actors, eh?
Life as an usher is not all bad though. There are many perks of the job such as the wide variety of shows that we get to see for free (theatre is definitely not cheap on a student budget); operas, ballets and even classic films from time to time. Sure, having to watch the same show over and over again can become tedious. Even panto can get very irritating (oh yes it can!) after hearing ‘He’s behind you!’ for the millionth time, but so much exposure to theatre is absolutely incredible as the arts are so important.
Some of the ushers that I know could give most theatre critics a run for their money because they’ve seen it all; actors and shows come and go but ushers are always there. Also, not all customers, directors and actors are as frustrating as the aforementioned ones. Ushers get to meet people from all different walks of life; from the elderly couple who have been going to the theatre since they were children and still dress up for it, to the four year old who is gushing about how amazing his first ever panto way. It’s always a pleasant feeling to know that you helped make someone’s theatre experience enjoyable.
The biggest perk of being an usher is getting to work with a great team of people. As corny as it sounds, the various trials and tribulations of the job tend to bring the ushering team closer together and as they say, a team that cleans up dead skin together, wins together. Or something like that. So, the next time you visit a theatre and you come across a member of the front of house staff, play nice.