Our story about the trials of usher body cameras in the West End proved to be one of those rare industry stories that broke into the general consciousness, becoming the subject of phone-ins across the country.
This is because it isn’t a theatre story at all. It is about how people behave (or don’t behave) in a public setting and towards junior members of staff. People are less used to sharing space for extended periods with strangers. They are therefore not as good at it as they once were. This is made worse in theatre because you often have different people with different expectations – like going out for a romantic meal and finding yourself next to an office party. Fans might be more rowdy at a football match, but that’s what everyone expects.
While this situation is not of theatre’s making, the scale of the reaction shows it is something it needs to think about. Hard.
The first priority must be to ensure ushers feel safe in their workplaces. Hopefully, body cameras will be a step in the right direction.
But there is other food for thought.
Higher theatre ticket prices are leading to raised expectations about the standard of what is on stage and the way audiences are treated. Ushers are a crucial – maybe the most crucial – part of this equation, but they are often the most junior and poorly paid member of staff.
Like a waiter, they provide the link between the creative team (the kitchen) and the customers. In this metaphor, it is the waiter who has to find a way of appeasing both the couple and the office party. And customer expectations are likely to be dictated by how much they have paid for their meal or their ticket. Put another way: I might put up with poor service in Pizza Express, but if I have been saving up for a special meal for months and the restaurant is understaffed or the waiters are poorly trained, it risks ruining my whole evening – no matter how good the food.
I remember a visit to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at London’s Palace Theatre soon after it opened. The front-of-house staff were excellent – remarkably so. They warmly welcomed every audience member and were proactive in helping people (many of whom might have been new to theatre) to feel at home and understand the rules of engagement.
On reflection, this shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be what audiences expect every time they go into the West End. But, to achieve this, theatres must give ushers the respect, support, protection, training and pay that reflect those heightened expectations.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith