After the Piccadilly Theatre’s partial ceiling collapse last week, people have praised the manner in which both front-of-house staff and emergency services were able to successfully evacuate the theatre, and rightly so. It should come as no surprise, though – they practise every week.
Preparation is everything. All theatres perform at least one evacuation drill a week and at least one live drill a year – with an admittedly reluctant audience. Any usher reading this will be all too familiar with the phrase: “This way out, please.”
Over the years I have been trained to handle situations from fires, to medical emergencies, to active shooters. Though you may recognise us as the ones selling ice creams or telling you to turn your phones off (seriously though, turn your phones off) we are chiefly there for your health and safety. Wednesday night was simply part of the job.
Theatre staff are ready at a moment’s notice to evacuate if needs be. Getting more than 1,000 people who want to leave out of the building is the easy part for them.
The difficult part is the duty manager having to make the call to evacuate in the first place. Wednesday night may have been clear cut, but that isn’t always the case. Faced with a possible emergency, the team needs to work quickly to identify the problem before deciding on the best and safest course of action.
I can recall being on standby to evacuate during a matinee performance after the fire alarm went off resulting in a show stop. The actors calmly walked off, the house lights came up and the audience nervously awaited instruction. We had located the source of the potential fire to the staff room, leaving those of us working in the auditorium fearing that not only were we facing a fire, but it had also already consumed half of the staff. Imagine our relief when we were told over the radio that someone was simply microwaving dough-balls.
Audiences play a vital role in the success of these situations. Wednesday’s crowd deserve credit for their swift and safe exit; it helps staff do their jobs. Following instructions during an emergency may seem obvious, but I have seen audience members stepping over a person receiving first aid at the start of the interval, simply because they needed the toilet and didn’t want to go the long way.
These incidents are curve balls. We don’t start the night expecting someone to suddenly fall ill or for an area-wide power cut to cause a blackout – an incident that resulted in me having to operate the cloakroom in near complete darkness – but we roll with the punches.
We need to work together. Just as other theatres that opened their doors to audience members after the Apollo Theatre incident, and just as everyone did on Wednesday night. But you can trust that front of house are in control. After all, it’s part of the job.
Adam Charteris is an actor and theatre usher