That front-of-house workers are not mindless robots there to serve every whim of patrons is hopefully becoming more apparent to those who previously had no clue.
It’s not hard to find stories of the anti-social behaviour and even violence towards ushers. The recent introduction of body cams and conflict training should not come as a surprise.
Many of us do these jobs to pay our rent and, basically, survive while trying to build other careers often in the theatre. A lot of actors, directors and writers work front of house, with most of us spending our days auditioning, writing and on other creative endeavours. FOH is a stepping stone and it fits in with the hours, so we can go from the side of the stage selling ice creams or Aperol Spritzes to on stage performing.
But many of us are struggling. We feel stuck.
I’ve worked in theatres for years and I have seen people come in full of drive and hope, only for this job on the side to take over. Maybe some would say they lacked what was needed to become successful. But it’s not as simple as that.
There are pros to front-of-house work: flexible hours, the pay is better than other customer-facing jobs and there’s a lot of downtime to do other work. You’re surrounded by creativity and useful connections and, for the most part, you can come and go as you please.
Some theatres also have a green room where you can go after a shift and get wasted because a patron called you a “twat” or has thrown a packet of Fruit Pastilles at your head, as has happened to colleagues of mine.
Being a member of the FOH team becomes a bubble – a security blanket. It is weird and intense. Members of the team bond over a shared love of moaning about the bizarre (mis)behaviour of some people in the audience.
“Shirley has come to see the show again for the eighth time that week?” Amazing. “A grown man has defecated in the Balcony?” Wonderful! It’s all part of the experience.
The job can be hard and it can be a drain on mental health. We go into work optimistic and ‘fired up’ only to have it zapped out of us by needy patrons or “emotional vampires”, as a colleague rather dramatically describes them.
We are there to help customers and are happy to, but some behaviour can be a tad unreasonable. I’ve had demands for a full wine tasting during a busy interval and had customers come behind the bar to fill up tap water because we’re too busy focusing on a queue that’s going out of the door. During my time as an usher I’ve been screamed at to magically create a new flavour of ice-cream that we don’t stock. That 15-minute block is quite stressful enough, thank you.
So why don’t we just quit – find something else that fits in with our creative endeavours? Because despite the negatives, FOH is cushty, especially compared to the alternatives. As mentioned, the pay is usually pretty good and you might end up making extremely useful connections. Not to mention you might just make the best friends you’ll ever have.
Some people realise their supposed dream job in theatre isn’t what they thought and find happiness working front of house. But how can it feel like less of a trap for the rest of us?
The majority of FOH are working class. Of course we are – we’re barely able to make ends meet. Is getting stuck in this job yet another thing limiting working-class access to the arts?
When you’re faced with a job performing on the fringe, for example, where the pay is either non-existent or much lower than a front-of-house salary, what do you do? Leave the cushion and risk not being able to pay rent because it might be a step in the right direction career-wise?
Then there’s the snobbish attitude to FOH workers from audiences, the industry and even sometimes among artistic directors, which is another reason you get stuck.
What can be done? Try to find a balance? Be picky with the creative jobs we take so we’re not left homeless if we leave FOH? Perhaps theatres should be doing more to motivate staff.
I don’t think any of us doing FOH have the answer, but we must do more to support each other. Talk. Listen. Share opportunities. Maybe we should all get together and write a TV show about it. Now there’s an idea.
Samuel Sims is a writer and managing editor of A Younger Theatre. He also works regularly in front of house roles in theatres across London