Over the past month I’ve seen fans waiting at theatre stage doors with very different results. The first was at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End. When Ian McKellen emerged at the end of the show, he diligently signed for all those waiting with programmes and posters in hand.
In contrast, at Chicago’s Oriental Theater at the end of Hello Dolly!, fans stood waiting for an autograph from its star Betty Buckley only to be left disappointed when she never emerged.
In recent years, there have been considerable changes in the way the public connects with stars, whether driven by tabloid media or social media. Stars are now increasingly conscious that if they are rude or disrespectful, that is as likely to go viral as any post from their fans.
The expressions of dismay on the faces of the fans waiting for Buckley was clear, and the situation had been exacerbated by the theatre’s stage door staff who failed to let anyone know the star would not be coming out.
‘If handled badly, a star leaving the theatre via a different exit to avoid the throng at the stage door will seem contemptuous’
When the news filtered out from a departing company member, there was an immediate sense that the fans who had bought tickets, and waited patiently for an autograph, a selfie, or even just a glimpse of the star, felt devalued.
The difference with the fans waiting for McKellen could not have been starker – when the actor came through the stage door, signed autographs and spoke to fans, the elation on their faces was unmissable.
But the issue is not clear cut. On the one hand, these artists have just finished work, many having spent several gruelling hours on stage. It’s entirely understandable that they may be feeling tired, unwell, want to protect their voices, or have guests in – all reasons they may not want to be confronted with a sea of pens and phones after they’ve finished work.
Working on various shows over the years, I learned that most fans are respectful if politely told that a star does not want to sign or pose for pictures. However, it does no one any favours if the fans are left to linger because the theatre itself does not have the courtesy to tell them this is the case. Even worse, it can risk making such proceedings appear nothing more than an inflated power-trip by all those concerned.
If handled badly, a star leaving the theatre via a different exit to avoid the throng at the stage door will seem contemptuous. Conversely, in some instances, it may even be a deliberate ploy for achieving media attention. During the 2002 run of Up For Grabs in the West End, Madonna regularly left the theatre through a different exit each night. Conveniently, however, photographers always seemed to guess which one, and snaps would appear in the newspapers bringing in coverage for her and the show.
For some audience members, that moment at the stage door is part of their theatregoing experience. I understand that. When I was growing up I would hang out at the stage door of Norwich Theatre Royal to collect autographs after the show – the hustle and bustle of it all held a real excitement.
Those actors who embrace their fans really impress me. In the movies, Tom Cruise is a case-in-point; at premieres he regularly spends considerable amounts of time meeting his fans. He realises these connections have helped earn him the loyalty of his fans.
When it comes to the theatre and stage door autographs, many stars – quite rightly – only sign posters, playbills, or merchandise related to the show itself for those who have seen the show. Genuine fans are easy to spot beside those who turn up with film posters and memorabilia, wanting no dedication on their autograph so they can put it for sale on eBay.
‘It’s crucial that fans are not left feeling undervalued’
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the success of new British musical Six being in no small part down to its hardworking cast who, after each performance, sign autographs and get photographed in costume with audience members. Those results have paid dividends not just for the show itself, but also the cast members in establishing and building their own valuable fanbases.
Over the past couple of years, what happens at a West End stage door after the show has become similar to Broadway. Suited security guards are now posted outside, looking on ominously. Crash barriers are put up outside the door, and there are sleek cars with blacked-out windows ready to whisk the star away. In these times of heightened security this has become deemed necessary, but it has also heightens the stage-door buzz.
Nonetheless, it’s crucial that the fans are not left feeling undervalued as a result. Buckley herself said in her seminal performance as Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard that “no-one ever leaves a star.” This may be true, however a simple announcement by theatre staff or a notice at the stage door regarding autographs and photos would ultimately leave it up to the fans themselves to decide if they really want to be left out in the cold.