The ‘free’ theatrical economy from actors to ushers

Ushers the Musical, which recently played at Charing Cross Theatre
Ushers the Musical, which recently played at Charing Cross Theatre
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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The other day The Stage reported claims that the Charing Cross Theatre had told its front-of-house staff of a plan to replace their paid services with unpaid interns instead.  The theatre officially denied that this was the case, though given some of the shows that have played there, I do wonder if it might be an idea to divert the cash back to paying the audience for having to watch them.

But then we live in an age where pretty much everyone, except the audience, is expected to do things for love, not money, in so many sectors of theatre beyond the West End, from the actors (working for elusive 'profit-shares') and the production staff and crew (working for 'experience') to 'critics' (writing for free for an ever-expanding range of websites in return for a free ticket to do so).

So why not ushers, too? Though it is a regulated, highly unionised profession on Broadway - and one of many reasons why producing (and therefore ticket) costs are so high there - here it is more commonly undertaken by drama students or resting actors, who want a bit of a connection to the theatre they love. At the first night of I Can't Sing! at the London Palladium, for instance, I saw one of the actors who only a few months earlier had been starring on that same stage in A Chorus Line ushering in the stalls.

At least this was the West End so he was still being paid (albeit not Equity minimum but more likely national minimum wage). But at other theatres it is far from unusual not to be paid; Shakespeare's Globe, for instance, prides itself on its volunteer army. According to its website,

All the stewards at Shakespeare's Globe are volunteers, and every performance requires a minimum of 40. Stewards perform a vital role as the public face of Shakespeare's Globe during our performances and events, ensuring that our patrons have a positive, enjoyable and safe experience.

A few years ago Time Out named the "pushy ushers" there in a feature on things that let London down. I blogged at the time how they wrote,

We know they have their orders, but do the elderly ushers at Shakespeare’s Globe have to be quite so officious?…. Woe betide any groundling who tries to squat on the floor, sit on the steps, or seek shelter in the rain beneath the roof where those who paid for seats are sitting snugly. Nobody escapes when these grey-haired enforcers are on the prowl.

The Globe's artistic director Dominic Dromgoole duly replied to Time Out in a letter they published,

The stewards at the Globe are volunteers; they give up long hours throughout the summer with good grace, great humour and great generosity. Everybody who works here, and the overwhelming majority of our audience, know that a visit to the Globe is only as special as it is because of the work the stewards do. So, fuck you.

At the Globe the ushers are therefore embraced as part of the family, and also see a range of shows in repertory. It's not like ushering at say, the St Martin's, and finding out whodunnit yet again in The Mousetrap.

I love going to theatres where the ushers are an integral part of the fabric of the theatre, though, and do their jobs with great grace. I recently saw a lovely young man at the Lyric, where Thriller Live is playing as an ongoing dose of tourist fodder, offer a warm smile to every single person who approached him, and he would personally direct each to their seats before issuing a friendly advisory not to take photographs during the show.

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