Adam Charteris: Punters, programmes and Netflix: all in a night’s work for an usher
Working front of house is easy: it pays the bills, the shifts are short and, as an actor, it leaves my days free to do the things that are important to me, like waking up at 11am.
A regular shift starts with the 6:30pm briefing, when we’re told by the duty manager how many patrons we’re expecting, if any of them have access needs and what our positions will be for the evening.
Where I work, the manager is considerate: we rarely work the same place twice in a week. As it’s a West End venue where shows often run for a long time, being in the cloakroom can be a welcome break from the auditorium.
It’s not that the show is bad. But imagine your favourite film is Jumanji. Now imagine having to watch it every day, sometimes twice a day for a year, taking a break in the middle to sell ice creams. To quote Jumanji: “A little rain never hurt anyone, but a lot can kill you.”
After the briefing, and a last scan of the auditorium, we do our radio checks and then let the audience into the theatre.
We often get the same questions, as you can imagine, most commonly from patrons looking for the bar and the toilets – sometimes both. It may sound tedious, but most people have never been to the venue before so we must exercise patience.
Once the house opens, we help punters to their seats, selling them programmes (a notion that appals American tourists, as they get given playbills free on Broadway) and, of course, telling them where the toilets are.
So what do ushers do when the show begins? I’ll either be in the foyer to take latecomers to their seats or in the auditorium watching the audience like a hawk.
While ushers are there for audience safety, we regularly have to tell people off for using their phones, taking photographs and, perhaps most extraordinarily for non-ushers, putting their feet on the stage.
This is more of a problem than you might think – it means the stage has to be repainted regularly to mask the scuffs and the marks from rogue soles.
The interval tends to be dominated by ice cream sales. I repeatedly list flavours to patrons who respond with made-up varieties of their own in the hope, and sometimes expectation, that those tubs will magically appear. This is a dance as old as time.
As the lights dim for the second half and we have cashed up the ice cream lolly, if I’m not back in the auditorium, I’ll be on a break. There’s a fair amount of down time in the job, so a book is a handy companion – or Netflix.
When lights come up and the audience leaves, the ushers frantically run around the auditorium with bin bags to collect the rubbish left behind. Every now and then I find a fiver, but unfortunately it must be declared as lost property. Just before we leave, we direct that last theatre patron who decides now is the time to relieve himself and then it’s home to rest before repeating the cycle again the next day.
So, yes, working front of house is easy. The only real risk is repetitive strain injury.