There is a famous theatre story from the time when Blood Brothers was playing in the West End at the Phoenix Theatre.
During one performance, a fight is said to have broken out between two audience members in the stalls. The show’s producer, Bill Kenwright, so the story goes, happened to be watching the performance from the back of the auditorium. He rushed down to help the ushers break it up and resolve the conflict, ensuring the show continued unhindered.
This story, which used to get told around Shaftesbury Avenue as an entertaining theatrical anecdote, takes on an altogether different resonance following the reports that West End ushers are trialling the use of body cameras on their uniforms. These are being introduced for their personal safety, enabling them to record altercations with disruptive customers.
Back when Kenwright supposedly interceded in a fight, such stories became famous because you did not hear of this sort of thing happening at the theatre – with the possible exception of stories about John Osborne and his cohorts fighting in the pub over the play they had just watched at London’s Royal Court.
But in 2019, we have to consider seriously just how bad things have become that we need such measures simply to protect ushers doing their job. What a sorry indictment of today’s society.
Ushers are some of the most crucial members of a theatre’s team and are often undervalued. They hold a frontline position, representing theatre, production and industry to the audience. And let’s not forget the real job of the usher is the care and public safety of the audience – not simply to sell interval ice creams and programmes.
So to read about the necessary introduction of body cameras is one of the saddest moments in theatre history and raises many serious issues.
I have previously written about what I believe to be a deterioration of behaviour within theatregoing.
My comments in the above column engendered a mixed reaction: some readers agreed with me, but others suggested a more relaxed atmosphere is actually what theatre needs to attract new audiences.
But wherever you sit on that spectrum, I would hope everyone shares the view that a line is crossed when audience behaviour extends to the abuse of theatre staff and other patrons.
The question is, has the encouragement by theatre managements at certain shows of audience drinking/eating/photography/texting/tweeting during performances compounded this problem and made them more challenging for its front-of-house staff to deal with from the outset?
Theatres understandably recognise that some shows will attract a more fun-loving crowd, and that’s good news for bar sales. So, at some high-profile West End musicals, there is a bigger onus placed on selling alcohol. Does this now require a review of policy?
We might not yet have reached the point where there is a need for signs saying “drink responsibly”, but some theatres have already found it necessary to introduce additional signage indicating what constitutes acceptable behaviour.
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych Theatre is displaying signage that specifically reads: “We operate a zero-tolerance policy on anti-social behaviour and anyone demonstrating disruptive or threatening behaviour towards fellow audience members, performers or staff will be requested to leave.”
However, the task of administering this during a performance is not easy. An usher is not a trained security guard, but is often expected to assist frontline in situations involving anti-social behaviour. Regularly, the usher will be the first person in the auditorium to deal with an incident. Are they being paid enough for what they are potentially being required to do?
The unacceptable increase in abuse towards front-of-house staff has reportedly led to some refusing to work Friday or Saturday evenings. If this continues, there is a risk of front-of-house staff shortages and losing good people who feel the job is not worth the hassle over what they have to put up with.
If ushers need these bodycams, then they also need an ongoing and consistent programme of enhanced professional training in self-defence, confrontation management and resolution, as well as access to counselling.
After all, Bill Kenwright won’t always be there to help.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan