After 30 years working front of house at the National Theatre, Alison Rae knows a thing or two about dealing with latecomers, tactfully offering cough sweets and being booed off stage, finds Caroline Bishop.
When I give my job title people look at me blankly. If I try and pin it down I say what I don’t do – I don’t do catering, I don’t do box office, I don’t do bookshop – and they think ‘you must have a really easy job because isn’t that what front of house is?’ But if we’ve got all three theatres full, that’s 2,000 people a night. If none of those people have any problems or questions, that’s really unusual and that would make it really dull, but of course it’s never like that. So that’s what you do on the night as a duty manager: look after the public, look after the people who look after the public – the ushers, the people that look at your tickets, sell your programmes, sit in the auditorium – that side of things.
I am the only Senior House Manager. There’s a team of House Managers who do different parts of the house management portfolio; one person looks after the ushers, somebody else looks after our invoices and programme audits, and two people are performance based, so they will come in and always manage a performance.
We always ask our managers to record feedback. We always do a show report, that’s a basic tool of the trade. Sometimes they are very dull; they say ‘it went fine, nothing happened’. But that can also be ‘Mrs Smith comes all the time and said if it wasn’t for the headsets she wouldn’t have got every word of whatever play is on, and she just wanted that passed on’. We also use it as a tool to feed back: ‘thank you engineer for coming and fixing this so quickly’. We have a small distribution group that will always look at it, and that will include the other House Managers, but also catering, press, engineering, housekeeping, and also the people who want a feel of what is happening front of house, as they can’t be there all the time.
My contract is for 35 hours a week but I do way over that, and it’s spread right the way through the day. Some days it’s 10:00 to 18:00, other days it’s coming in at 14:00 and staying ‘til past 23:00. I’m not here every night; I think my friends think I am!
Hamlet starts so early. The last time we did a 18:00 show we had most of the audience in by 18:00, then we did the latecomers who knew it was 18:00 but were held up. Then there were the people who thought they had arrived on time thinking it was 19:00 and then the people who thought it was 19:00 and arrived late, then the people who thought it was 19:30. So the last person I took into the Olivier circle was actually about 19:45. On the way past I was able to say to her, ‘I tell you what, why don’t you order your interval drink now because you’re going to be out again in ten minutes and then you don’t have to queue!’ She thought it was a brilliant idea.
I think they think we’re going to tell them off. The voice in their head is saying ‘I’m late’, which is a judgemental thing in itself, which I hope we don’t ever say. We’re factual and say ‘the play’s started’; if you say ‘you’re late’ that’s got a different tone to it. We will get you in. We will always get you into that seat in however long it’s going to be.
The great unwell
The most challenging thing is if you’ve got illness; trying to manage an illness so the people immediately in the vicinity aren’t disturbed. Obviously you don’t want to stop the show. We have a system where someone will call for first aid assistance, because I’m not a qualified first-aider and I’d hate to go in there and make matters worse. Then you have to coordinate. If somebody is unconscious and you’re coming up to the interval, you don’t really want the audience to walk over them on the way out. So sometimes it’s just directing people out the other way.
It always looks more worrying than it is. If somebody who was sitting next to you and upright and engaging suddenly stops doing that and their chin is down on their chest, it is very frightening. People tend to assume that person’s had a stroke or heart attack. Nine times out of ten it isn’t anything like that; most of the time it’s a faint. But people don’t know that. So it’s one of the things we do talk to the ushers about. With that number of people through the doors every day, statistically it’s going to happen.
Of course people get colds and coughs. If you have a hit show like Hamlet, I’m afraid people don’t say, ‘oh I’m not feeling very well, I’ll hand my ticket back and I’ll stay at home and look after myself’ because they know the chances are they won’t get to come and see it again.
If you are listening to a fantastic soliloquy, you don’t want to hear 500 people clearing their throats. But it’s very hard to know what to do about that. Even though we’ve got lozenges and mints that people could get beforehand, once they’re in there, that’s tricky. I completely sympathise, I know what that’s like. Sometimes it’s an involuntary action, you can’t help it. We deal with it case by case. If you know that you’ve got empty seats, it’s easy to say, ‘would you like me to move you?’ Sometimes you do have to go and say, ‘actually, d’you know, it’s just been drawn to my attention, you might find this really helpful, I’ve got this cough sweet, or you can take your glass of water in with you, would that help you?’
From front of house to front of stage
If you see a woman in a black suit at the front of the stage who is clearly not in costume then they are probably there to make an announcement, and it may be something very short notice like an indisposition.
Quite a long time ago, we had Peter Pan on in the Olivier theatre. About half an hour into Neverland there’s a scene change where the lagoon opens up. On this particular evening the lifts on the stage revolve weren’t working, so we were stuck with the lagoon, which meant a hole in the middle of the stage. I was asked to go on stage and make an announcement, to apologise and say ‘go and have an interval, go and get some ice cream and we’ll have this fixed as soon as we can’. It took us half an hour which put quite a lot of time onto the running time. I thought it was fair to go back at the end of that period to thank the audience for waiting but also to say that we still needed to take the scheduled interval in 20 minutes time. So I went on and said ‘the revised curtain-down time will now be…’ it was something really rather late, like 22:50. I heard from the circle someone go ‘Boooo’, and then it picked up and it went all the way round the circle and dropped down and went round the stalls in the other direction. So I was enveloped in being booed on the Olivier stage. I was aware of my jaw quivering a bit, thinking, ‘I’ve just been booed off the Olivier stage!’ I turned my back and it felt like a long walk back to the rear stage. Thankfully the lovely technical manager said ‘don’t worry, it’s not you, they wanted Captain Hook and he hadn’t come on yet, so they just thought they’d boo you instead.’
The other thing we manage is backstage tours. As far as I know we are one of the biggest backstage tour operations; something like 27,000 people will come round on a backstage tour of the NT every year. I don’t lead them personally. That’s the job I used to do, so it’s nice for me because I’m managing the people doing the job that I used to do, so you do have a real in-depth knowledge of what the challenges are.
I think everyone likes the idea of going somewhere they’re not meant to. You go through that symbolic portal of the pass door, and suddenly you’re into the nitty-gritty of backstage. We take up to 30 people on a single tour and we do tours six times a day. During the week it’s more people that come for formal learning reasons. It’s very popular with Americans, because it saves them a lot of time and money, they can tick the ‘I’ve been to British theatre’ box. Then there are people who just go, ‘I’ve always wanted to see what goes on backstage’. Compared to other places, this is a big public area. But it’s [front of house] only something like 25% of the total ground floor.
One of the other guides told me it’s amazing how many people at the end of the tour go ‘I didn’t know you could do that job in theatre’. People do think that theatre is about acting and directing. I think they vaguely know that probably there’s someone who does the set, but they probably think it’s the same person who does the lights. Why should they know? We are just lucky that it’s such a big organisation here that we’ve got the resources.
30 years and counting
I started here making tea. I was a student and there was quite a culture of young people working here. Then I became an usher, and from there I went on to being a tour guide and working on the information desk.
It’s nice to have the continuity, and what I find rewarding is if you have members of the public that will ask you a question like ‘what else has such and such an actor done?’, or you can say ‘well the last time we did The Cherry Orchard the set was like this.’ I think I am considered a bit of a walking archive. This is my fourth Hamlet.
There’s been a real change in audience while I’ve been here. Every arts organisation will tell you about wanting to broaden the base and access. The performing arts in general did have that very elite middle-class atmosphere, to do with not just access in terms of can you afford a theatre ticket, but do you have the sense of entitlement and background to feel comfortable in a place like this? That’s changed. It’s not just younger people coming in, but people coming from different backgrounds, because of things like the £10 Travelex scheme.
People to people
I think there’s this idea that if you work in theatre you’ll be quite arty, and perhaps a prima-donna. There are people like that but most roles in theatre, as with elsewhere, you just need to be able to get on with people and take the rough with the smooth. It does help if you like theatre, if you are engaged in it, if you think the reason I’m here, even though I’m not on stage, is because I’m facilitating that. I think that’s important.
I think you need to be able to enjoy those people’s [the audience’s] enjoyment as well; not just think, ‘this is the umpteenth performance of Hamlet’ and roll your eyes at it. This is absolutely the first time people have seen it, and people do want to come and reflect that back to you. That’s one of the most satisfying things, at the end of the show. We might have been running round all evening doing latecomers, looking after the sick people or whatever else. Just to get people coming out at the end going ‘that was the best production I’ve ever seen’, it’s such a good reminder.