West End theatres have recently trialled fitting their front-of-house staff with body cameras to combat incidences of aggressive behaviour from audience members. The camera’s front-facing screen shows the recording as it occurs, allowing aggressors to get a good look at themselves loosening their ties and rolling up their sleeves as they prepare for fisticuffs.
My first reaction to this is: great. The happiness and more importantly the safety of staff should be a priority for theatres. There have been reports of staff refusing to work certain shifts for fear of facing such behaviour. No one should feel unsafe at work.
Theatres have implemented increased security measures in recent years such as CCTV and security guards. I have sat through plenty of conflict resolution training over the years, using the role-play section as a desperate attempt to do my best Stanley Kowalski impression. But these methods aren’t foolproof. CCTV has blind spots, security can’t be in two places at once and audiences very rarely shout “Stella” at me.
Early trials suggest that the cameras are successful. If there is a technology that theatres are able to implement to de-escalate trouble, then it’s objectively a brilliant thing. I can remember working at venues that did not have the budget to give every member of staff on shift a radio, meaning half the team were unable to contact each other in case of an incident. If it works and we can afford it, use it.
It’s not always easy to respond when faced with aggression. Colleagues of mine have been too shaken to recall what happened to them during such occurrences. I think back the times I have been screamed at, sworn at or squared up to by audience members and can’t help but think that if I’d had clear evidence of what happened, I would have felt more empowered in the aftermath.
Some of you may be thinking: body cameras? Is theatre a low-end police state? How did it come to this? But the same was said about security staff and bag checks on the door. Those things are commonplace now.
Incidents published in the last year of a fight between audience members at the National Theatre and an altercation at the Old Vic suggest that this is a growing problem. But this certainly isn’t new. Some ushers tell tales of a fight every night at their venue. Others refuse to cover at certain venues because they’ve heard the stories.
But why are these things happening? Sometimes it’s booze. But the reality is that theatre is incredibly expensive. Tickets, drinks, getting to the venue, hiring a babysitter. Maybe you’ve booked a hotel for the weekend. It adds up. That’s so much pressure for three hours. I can understand someone being disappointed by their experience if their expectations aren’t met. But violence and aggression towards staff and fellow audience members? And you thought cameras were mad…