Ushers: the smartest people in the room
Who are the most important people in the theatre?
The actor and the writer are obvious answers, but a close third, alongside the backstage team that run the production, are the ushers, yet they are so frequently overlooked.
The reason why they are so valuable to a production is the fact that they are the eyes and ears of the entire theatre every single night. They hear how audiences are reacting and I am constantly amazed at how rarely producers or creative teams ask them for their opinion.
In my own producing work, I have found and relied upon them as a valuable part of the production and preview process with the information they provide giving a possible further insight into what's working or not. Often, though, they are simply seen as the people who tear the tickets and sell the ice creams at the interval, short-changing their vital contributions. Through their various front of house duties they play a crucial part of the theatregoing experience where, for many audience members, they may be one of only three people they engage with that evening: the person who sells them the ticket, the usher, and then the exchange on stage between actor and audience.
The experience of all this is what you take away at the end, and may ultimately determine whether you decide to go back again. In New York, I am frequently appalled at the level of customer care that audiences receive. On a recent visit to one Broadway theatre, I saw the ushers constantly yelling at audience members where to sit as if they were herding cattle, and then proceeded for much of the first act (and in some of the most tender moments), to flash their torches at any given moment whether directing latecomers or telling people to turn off cell phones. They became the most distracting thing in the performance with an almost total lack of understanding of what was playing on stage. The end of this particular production was marked by them having already opened all the exit doors so traffic noise outside could be clearly heard, and they then all stood on duty in their coats and with their grocery shopping ready to make an equally quick exit - nothing like making the audience feel welcome!
I cannot think of any other situation where people, who are in this case paying often high sums of money for tickets, would get such bad service. By contrast in the UK, I am frequently impressed by the level of customer service on display by front of house staff and I think this has been steadily been improving over the past few years.
An example of ushers coming into their own was seen last December when the Apollo Theatre’s ceiling tragically collapsed. I am sceptical if such an incident were to happen in a New York theater that, based on what I have seen, it would be handled with the same efficiency. Much customer care is about common sense but it still takes real skill to get it right, and this is essential in any public service industry. After you work with a good usher you soon learn they are worth their weight in gold.
At a time when more entertainment choices at less cost are readily available than ever before, it is vital that the experience of going to the theatre does not simply start when the curtain goes up. A night at the theatre is exactly that, with a beginning, middle and an end - it is the whole experience which stays with an audience member and it is these things you will remember - sometimes even more so than the production itself!
The experiences of West End ushers are now the subject of a new musical at the Charing Cross Theatre aptly entitled: Ushers - the Front of House Musical with music and lyrics by Yannis Koutsakos and James Oban.
I have not seen the show nor do not know anyone connected with it, but I was pleased to see this often-neglected bunch of theatre workers being put in the spotlight for a change, given a voice, and even a song!