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Richard Jordan: Theatres risk alienating audiences with aggressive security checks

The Apollo Theatre in London's West End
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Who are the most important people working each night in the theatre? The box office, ushers, actors and bar staff.

They are the people an audience will interact with when they go to see a show and therefore are crucial to the theatregoing experience.

It’s sad that in today’s troubling times, we now have to also add to this list the security guard at the door of the theatre.

Last January, I wrote about the visible security presence on Broadway. This may serve as an attempt for audience reassurance but I frequently think the theatre bag check is also as much about stopping soft drinks from outside being taken into the theatre.

I would hate to think that the risk of terrorism has become used as an excuse to also help boost the theatre’s own takings at the bar.

Over the past few years, I have reluctantly accepted that security checks are an inevitable part of the theatregoing experience.

But accepting that leads to the security guards effectively becoming the face of the theatre for audiences. It’s therefore vital that they combine their security duties with a warm welcome.

After the recent terrorist attacks in London, theatres adopted a stringent security policy. The National Theatre effectively became a fortress, reduced to just two entrances.

Its friendly and well-informed security guards were placed on duty to check the bags of anyone entering the building. It caused some hassle and often long queues but was well-managed by a friendly and welcoming team.

Over the river in the West End, security guards are being deployed across Theatreland, but with a frequent lack of customer care, which risks doing the theatres and their dedicated staff a huge disservice.

Last Saturday I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, and a few weeks earlier Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre.

Nimax, which runs both these theatres and four others in the West End, has some of the best front-of-house staff. When you visit one of its theatres, you genuinely feel that everyone is a valued part of the team and cares passionately about the theatre and production.

So it was disappointing to observe and experience an unnecessarily aggressive attitude by the theatre’s security staff greeting the arriving audiences.

They could not have cared less about that evening’s show and did not know the answers to simple questions, such as what time the performance finished.

But at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the behaviour of the security staff at end of the performance that particularly troubled me. Standing dead centre in the lobby, and looking menacing with arms firmly folded, was a security guard whose position forced patrons leaving to walk around him.

As the most visible staff person, audience members were naturally asking him questions, none of which he was able to answer; instead he responded with an attitude of annoyance at even being asked.

“Where are you going?” he barked at an audience member who had come out into the lobby looking for the toilet and needed to go back down to the stalls. “Have you seen the performance?” he went on to ask, even though they were clearly holding the programme.

Meanwhile, I had gone past him to pick up a leaflet for the next show only to be challenged as to what I was doing.

Standing by the wall and less immediately noticeable, was the front-of-house manager. I went over to comment at this security guard’s behaviour and how little information he and his colleagues were able to provide about the show.

She was pleasant and helpful and explained that the security staff were contracted to the theatre. That meant they were not part of the theatre’s staff and the theatre did not know they were going to be there on any given night.

Had I not spoken to her, I’d have simply assumed – as most of the audience probably did – that because of their visible presence they were core members of the theatre’s staff.

The security guard is obviously there to do a specific job. But the contractor’s approach must be to adapt their staff into the environment of their workplace.

At the same time, the theatres who are contracting them need to ensure a greater level of training and integration to the same excellent level of customer care that awaits the audience once they have entered the building.

The theatregoing experience has significantly changed in recent months. Today it begins not when you step into the theatre but instead when you open your bag for inspection outside it. These organisations must take care not to risk making audiences feel devalued.

How you end a performance is as important as how you begin it. The sight of security guards and bag checks at our theatres is here to stay, but one of the purposes of terrorism is to stop people enjoying their everyday activities.

Therefore, if audiences continue to defy the threat and keep coming, then for theatres’ future, the whole experience must be truly great from start to finish.

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