Ushers have revealed their experiences of dealing with increasingly aggressive audience members, with incidents ranging from verbal abuse and threatening behaviour to actual physical violence.
The front-of-house employees, who have worked across a number of major West End theatres, shared some of the incidents they have faced in the course of their jobs. They spoke out after it came to light this week that ushers are being given body cameras in a bid to prevent confrontations with audience members from escalating.
The Stage spoke to a number of ushers, past and present, about their working environments, with many claiming the behaviour of “entitled” theatregoers is leading to a situation where they are abused. Ushers reported being spat and shouted at, being physically assaulted and having to break up fights between audience members themselves.
They also expressed concerns about the low levels of pay that front-of-house staff are expected to work on, with some telling The Stage that rates of pay are below the London Living Wage.
Evan Garrett spent three years working at a number of venues, and said he was spat at by an audience member while working at the Royal Albert Hall for asking them “not to hang their feet over the edge of the circle”.
“Any issues of aggression I encountered in the three years I worked front of house at various venues came from white, middle-class patrons both male and female. For me it stems from a feeling on entitlement and superiority,” he said.
Osian Ifans has worked at a variety of theatres, and agreed there was an “entitlement” from audiences who pay high ticket prices.
“Anytime you get a late patron who can’t take their seats straightaway they usually get angry and demand their money back despite them being late. Then telling patrons to stop using phones will usually get you an aggressive response,” he said, adding: “That’s not to say that most people are reasonable and just looking to have a nice time. However there is an entitlement that comes with the high ticket prices.”
The following ushers asked not to be named:
“We’re usually subject to anger from patrons: people getting annoyed over company policy, such as latecomer points and bar prices.
“A show got cancelled one day due to a fault with the automation on the set. As you can imagine, we had angry patrons everywhere but one particular patron decided to tell a colleague of mine: ‘I hope you die of a brain tumour.’
“The absolute highlight of my usher horror stories though is what I commonly refer to as poo-gate. Two patrons got into an argument because Woman A kept on getting up to leave the row. Woman B kindly asked her to stop getting up as it was distracting her from the show and that next time she got up to leave she would not let her back in. Woman A ignored this and left anyway. Woman A then went and pooed into a tissue and came back and smeared it all over Woman B’s face.
“The body camera idea would definitely deter aggressive behaviour if people can see they’re being recorded, but I can’t help but feel that it’s very extreme. Soon all ushers will be decked out like police officers. Theatres need to ensure that when people misbehave they are asked to leave. It’s all well and good giving an usher a body camera, but the only way to ensure safety is to make sure that any person being aggressive to any member of the public or staff is immediately removed from the venue.”
“Hamilton’s Victoria Palace is run very differently from other theatres [I’ve worked in] and it’s because the show is the hottest ticket in town. It was a breakthrough for introducing black, Asian and minority ethnic artists in its casting, but the majority of audiences I dealt with were rich white people. It’s designed for the polar opposite of that, but I would never see them. They are paying £250 a ticket and that brings them a sense of entitlement – that they can have whatever they want.
“But it’s not just about the customers. If you found yourself in an altercation with a customer, without fail the management would always support the customer, which was difficult to deal with. They ran the theatre like a palace – if you were slouching, you would be poked in the back to stand up straight and if you were not standing still, you would be told to stand still. And you weren’t allowed time off for auditions. Most people are not there to invest in a career front of house. After six months I’d had enough.”
A spokesman for the theatre said: “Delfont Mackintosh Theatres would never condone that kind of behaviour.”
“I think this starts with entitlement – because people have bought a ticket, they feel they deserve VIP treatment. I have had experiences when customers have sworn in my face, I have been physically assaulted. You have to stand outside the Lyceum and filter people in: it’s one at a time, and quite often it tends to be a boyfriend getting protective about a girlfriend and saying: ‘No, she’s coming in with me.’ And that’s when they get aggressive, and push you out the way, or in my case, pushed up against a wall.
“I have had members of staff who have had homophobic slurs thrown at them. We have security now but before we did, we were the front line and if anything kicked off we had to get involved and we were not trained for that.
“I have to say the management is phenomenal – they give us time off for auditions and they say, if you need time off to take care of your mental health, take time off. It didn’t always used to be like that.
“If there is a violent situation, we have code words to use, and anyone on radio will come to you if you register what is called a ‘code 9’. We also have a fantastic security team. Our head of security is very good and make sure everyone is safe.
“All the management team – known as senior assistants – are only paid a pound more than standard ushers, who are on about £9 an hour. But they are all ex-front of house members and know exactly where we are coming from.
“Sadly, to some, you are just an usher – the lowest of the low. I was once standing selling ice creams and a mum came up with her daughter and said: ‘Look darling, this is what happens if you don’t do well at school.’ Most of us are trained performers. Everyone has worked their arses off and are there waiting for their break. So when people are like that it’s very hard.”
“A woman arrived late for The Ferryman, at the Gielgud, and was shown to the latecomers monitor and told that the entry point is approx 12 minutes in. ‘Do you know who I am?! Sam Mendes is a friend of mine, he’d be horrified to know that you’re making me wait,’ she said. I replied: ‘I’m afraid it was Sam Mendes himself who decided exactly when latecomers are allowed to be shown to their seats.’
“A few minutes later, she came to see me again, volume only slightly less than a full-on yell. ‘The quality of this screen is disgusting,’ she said. I replied: ‘Madam, Sam Mendes watches the show from this screen on a regular basis and has never commented on the quality. I’m worried that you’re missing important plot points. It’s just a few more minutes until you’ll be taken in, so why don’t you try and catch up on the screen?’ She walked away, but then suddenly turned and shouted: ‘I will have you fired. You’re history.’”
Delfont Mackintosh Theatres (which owns the Victoria Palace, which hosts Hamilton, and the Gielgud, which hosted The Ferryman) has developed an extensive training programme, which all front-of-house staff are required to complete before they start and during their employment. It includes modules on security, conflict resolution and how to deal with aggressive behaviour. DMT has invested in a learning-management system allowing employees to progress their required training as well as offering developmental training. Staff are also supported by access to the services of an occupational health doctor, clinical psychologist, recreational yoga and other sessions throughout their employment.
The Stage also approached both the Royal Albert Hall and Ambassador Theatre Group (which operates the Lyceum – home to The Lion King – and the Apollo Victoria – home to Wicked). Neither had supplied comment as The Stage went to press.