Most of us take ushers for granted. They welcome audiences with a smile, help them navigate a labyrinth of foyers and staircases, and provide them with ice creams, programmes and glasses of wine. Audiences are so used to being looked after at the theatre that it’s only on the very rare occasions that they can’t find an usher when they need one that these unsung heroes even register on their radars.
True, they sometimes reprimand theatregoers or tell them things they don’t want to hear, but it’s always done for that visitor’s own benefit and that of the rest of the audience, and always with the utmost respect.
Ushering isn’t the most glamorous role in theatre, but that doesn’t bother the people I spoke to for this article. Whether working at a small regional house, a huge national institution or a historic West End venue, the motivation is the same: making the experience better for the patrons and introducing more people to the joys of live theatre. Three cheers for the front of house.
“I trained on a theatre course at Rose Bruford College and afterwards I needed a job. A couple of my housemates had done ushering and they recommended it as an in-between job, and that was very much how I understood it. There are people at the Playhouse who remember me saying, ‘I’m hopefully going to be here a couple of months and then move on’. That was two years ago.
“It was partly financially motivated – I quite like having money, which people who act for a living don’t tend to have a lot of in my experience – but I learned to love the job as well. It’s about opening people’s eyes to what theatre can be.
“We get a lot of people here who have never been to a theatre before and I really enjoy making their first time at the theatre as special as it can be. They’re our guests and it’s our duty and our responsibility to make sure that they have a great time.
“We have a very high number of tourists in the theatre in London – that’s what keeps the West End afloat. We depend very highly on foreign trade. It’s really wonderful to meet those people and let them have the uniquely British experience of coming to the West End.
“Ushers love to trade horror stories about the audience; there’s a great camaraderie. In terms of bad behaviour, it’s what you would imagine – taking photos, or being particularly loud during the show, or phones being turned on. There have been very few times when I’ve seen people getting ejected and it’s usually because they’ve got so drunk that they’re not in control of what they’re doing.
“Every show has a different audience, and night to night every show has a different audience as well. We have an absolutely lovely audience for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – they’re very polite and respectful. A lot of them have been to the theatre before, so they know the rules and they go away very happy.
“I’ve done work at all 11 ATG theatres in the West End – we operate a policy whereby if you’re not needed in one theatre you could be asked to go to another. It’s a really wonderful introduction to the multitude of different theatres that we have in London.
“I became a volunteer at the theatre in 2006, wanting to make new friends. I’d been going to see the shows here for about 25 years. As a friend of the theatre you don’t have to volunteer but I wanted to. When I first started I just did one afternoon a week and ended up working a Tuesday, a Wednesday, Friday evening and two shows on a Saturday, because I really enjoyed it.
“What we normally do is sell programmes and merchandise for the shows and concerts. If an usher phones in sick and they haven’t got anybody to replace them, then they’ll ask one of the volunteers if they wouldn’t mind doing it.
“My favourite thing is talking to the patrons when they come in. They ask us about the theatre, especially if they haven’t been before. A lot of people who come on holiday walk round the pier; we’ll open the doors at the interval in the summertime and they go, ‘Wow, a theatre’. We start telling them about the show and they say, ‘We must go and book’.
“You’re absolutely part of the team. They’re very much appreciative of what we do. The director of operations always thanks us at the end. After the closing show of the summer we have a buffet that’s just for staff, volunteers and the cast and crew. We have a chinwag and see how it’s all gone. I’ve made quite a lot of friends over the years. Not just friends in the theatre but all the people that come and perform.
“It’s a sense of belonging. I always say that it’s like a family. It’s just so nice to be with them and that’s why I like to spend so much time down here. When we’re closed, like in the eight weeks after the Christmas show, until we start up and running again in spring, you feel at a bit of a loss because you haven’t got the Pier. Because the bar’s still open, we’ll go down there and have a cuppa in the afternoon to see the ones that are still there.”
“I’ve been here for 10 years this summer and have worked pretty much all my life in theatre or cinema as an usher or front of house manager. It suits my temperament. I’m a writer, so it gives me that time free in the day to do my stuff. It doesn’t require lots of brain. It just requires empathy, so your brain doesn’t hate you at the end of doing this sort of work.
“One of the great things about working at the National Theatre is that you get to see 20 to 25 different shows and see them develop. Some really improve over time and some you really like at first and then you think, ‘I’m not quite so sure about that’. Seeing how different audiences respond to the same show is very interesting as well.
“I like to get to work a bit early. I don’t like to rush in. There is a certain element of putting on a show: you need to be welcoming, no matter what mood you’re in.
“Last Sunday we had a medical situation where a lady passed out and had to be removed from the auditorium. She came to as we were lifting her out and was sick all over me. Poor woman, she was very upset. [Sometimes] there are people that are a bit drunk, or people that aren’t enjoying it so they are a bit fidgety. The nice thing is that theatre is communal so pretty much everyone realises there is a code of behaviour.
“The culture of ushering has changed a bit in that there were very delineated roles with the ushers, the bar staff and the people working in the bookshop or whatever. Now everyone is moved around so you could be working one evening ushering and the next in the bookshop or serving coffee. It’s good because you get to know how the building works in different areas. It’s the variety that’s kept me here and will keep me here.”