Saturday, November 17, 2012

Theatre needs 'Games Makers'

First off, let me be absolutely clear.  This post is in no way a criticism of Front of House staff at the theatres we attend - they've never been anything other than welcoming and helpful.  And we've also seen how effective they can be when needed. But recent months have convinced me that they might be missing a trick somewhere along the line...

Back in July and August we were fortunate enough to see a number of events at the Olympics and one of the elements that made London so special for those few weeks was the contribution of the 'Games Makers' (for the sake of simplicity I'm calling them all Games Makers but I'm also including the large numbers of staff from London Transport etc. in this).  This volunteer army helping spectators in venues and around London were given one of the loudest cheers of the evening during the Olympic Closing Ceremony and have been widely praised for their efforts.  I can't claim to be an expert on these things, but to my untrained eye the reason the Games Makers made such an impression was their willingness to engage with spectators - to chat about the Games, to take photos or just share a moan about the weather.

I'd pretty much written off the undoubted success of the Games Maker role as a transient magical bubble that was lost with the ending of the games, but on Friday night I witnessed something very similar... in Glasgow.  We were going along to see some of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup at the new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and as we'd been advised there would be no visitor parking we'd opted for the free shuttle bus from Glasgow City Centre.  As I waited at the bus station for Waldorf to join me, the SPT staff organising the services were chatting away to those in the queue, giving helpful advice for the return bus schedule and talking about the event.  They even offered to hold the bus a minute or two if needed as Waldorf was running (literally) slightly late.  On arrival at the Velodrome a number of hosts in Games Maker style uniforms were greeting people and offering assistance, and later, while waiting for our return bus after the event we had a lengthy conversation with some G4S staff about how the event had been going.

We've seen approaching 400 shows over the last six years and I could count on one hand the number of times we've actually been engaged in a conversation about theatre by front of house staff.  And off the top of my head I can only think of two occasions where it was more than a passing comment - once by a young usher waiting to go in to the Citizens Circle Studio and once by staff at the Pleasance during the Fringe.

Of course, theatres and companies make other efforts to connect with their audiences - the Tron staff mingle at 'Patrons' events, Nonsenseroom chat away with audiences after their 'Special Performances' at Rosslyn Chapel and Rapture often greet people on their way into the theatre. Cumbernauld Theatre also tried hard with an 'Arts Ambassadors' scheme while the National Theatre of Scotland run their 'Social Media Calls' and often hand out audience comment cards.  But that leaves a huge number of missed opportunities where audiences simply arrived to a welcoming smile and left with a flyer for another show.  There's no shortage of moments before house doors open where greetings could be exchanged and shows promoted - "I think you'll really enjoy this, I've seen it three times and am still laughing each night", "If you like this you might like XXXXX which is on next month", "Did you see their last show?  Wasn't it amazing?".  We don't think many people working front of house in theatres are there just for the money - they have a love of theatre and that passion should be cut loose and encouraged to be passed on to audiences.

It's a cultural change but it's one that can be made, and one that I think could make a difference.  Other places already seem to do it.  I'd noticed a while back that checkout staff in Asda were noticeably chattier than any other supermarket - it was almost impossible not to find yourself chatting to them. "Oh those must be new, I'm going to have to try them myself", "Have you tried the Honey flavoured ones of those?"  So much so, that I'm convinced they've been trained that way - and it's not just in one store.  Admittedly at first I found it a little odd, but actually I've come to quite like it.  It's the same thing that elevates a restaurant where the waiting staff have tried all the dishes and can happily make recommendations - "The Cheesecake is delicious but is quite heavy - if you prefer something lighter the Lemon Mousse is always popular."

So, all the theatres out there, the next time you have a meeting with your front of house teams, maybe you could ask them how they would feel about interacting a bit more with audiences.  I'd like to think at least a few of them are just waiting for a bit of encouragement.  Some people will no doubt be sceptical about such an initiative, and in fairness I can't really blame them.  I would never have thought that London's Games Makers would make a difference.  But they most definitely did.

7 Heckles

Anonymous said...

Understand your sentiment, but couldn't disagree with it more!!! Theatre is an intimate and personal experience, not some crowd shepherding rammy. If you must, then keep that nonsense for panto season, thank you very much. The last thing we want is some spotty part time adolescent studying an HNC Drama attempting to engaging us in conversation about how Brechtian that last Shakespeare was.

As for the suggestion Front of House staff aren't just there for the money—what utter nonsense! Perhaps pay a bit closer attention next time you're inside a venue. Very few FOH staff are afforded the luxury of watching performances. The majority will be outside working to ensure the smooth running of the venue. I can assure you, they're not there because their favourite hobby is loitering in the lobby of nice buildings.

Anonymous said...

It always adds to the experience when buying/consuming anything if the people you interact with know a bit about what they are selling. The barman who can tell you about the beer he is pouring into your glass - where it is made and "if you like this beer, you should try that".

The trick is getting it right, and deciding if the customer is actually interested in hearing more. In a theatre, there is generally very little time to interact with staff who are doing a job getting you to your seat and selling you a programme.

If I get a moment, I always try to ask how ticket sales for the show are going - it breaks the ice, and provides a chance for both parties to chat further .... or not. Usually, I find theatre staff are delighted to see someone taking an interest.

Statler said...

@ Anonymous - I'm not looking for front of house staff to start giving academic critiques of shows (although I suspect many could - and certainly better than us). I'd just like to have the same kind of conversation with them that I have with other theatregoers waiting in a queue or sharing a table in the bar. I'm also not sure I recognise your characterisation of Front of House staff - although perhaps we are just visiting different theatres. I'll certainly concede that there may be a "it's just a job" culture in large West End type theatres, but even there our 'VIP Host' when we saw "Jersey Boys" was entirely up front that he was a 'resting' actor. I still feel that for most, they are drawn to work in the theatre through an existing passion for it - we've seen several FoH staff appear in community and youth/student theatre shows over the years. A number of theatres we visit do appear to have a policy of having FoH sitting in on shows and we know some even take an interest in our posts here. Yes, it needs to be an organic and unforced conversation between people with a shared interest, rather than a "Would you like fries with that?" moment. Unsurprisingly for someone who chooses to post his thoughts on shows online, for me most theatre is about a shared experience rather than a 'personal and intimate' one and I'm hoping at least some FoH (and other theatregoers) feel that way too.

@ Bluedog - Agreed, striking the right tone and when to start/end those conversations is a definite skill in itself. While there are times when staff are clearly rushed off their feet, as someone who almost obsessively arrives in plenty of time, I do think there are moments before the house opens where this kind of conversation could take place.

Edward said...

Statler, really interesting an thought-provoking. All my comments are made very strictly on a personal basis.
I'm on the board of a theatre that I know makes a point of having front of house staff available to welcome patrons as they arrive at the front door. I’m confident that our staff get the encouragement and support –if they actually needed such encouragement – to engage with patrons. I myself make a point of regularly going up to patrons and politely introducing myself as a board member and asking for their views on their experiences that night and how they are feeling about it. I have been met with an unfailingly appreciative response - on the odd occasion folks are profuse in expressing their appreciation for such a personal bit of engagement.

However, it is a lot to suppose that that kind of personalised and incidental kind of exchange can be readily routinised or standardised. When you suggest that, “ There's no shortage of moments before house doors open where greetings could be exchanged and shows promoted”, my immediate response was a bit of a cringe at how I think many theatre goers would react to that kind a smaltzy USA style approach.

In another context, I know that I really detest the way that restaurant staff are now compelled to on end-of-dinner auto-pilot with the banal 'did you enjoy your meal' (insincerity given away by the way they move on that little bit to quickly for you to say anything at a normal pace - or by their utter poll-axed look if you respond quick enough to say 'well actually, can I point out...').

I suggest that there is also an apples-and-pears sort, in comparing the mega sports events with the more ongoing demands of a theatre operation. The mega-sports events can rely to a very large extent on volunteers. These events have short-term resources thrown at them that other sectors can only dream of (indeed there’s a real issue in the public funding favouring of such events against other, cultural, activities that are far more embedded and enduring in communities and wider society). There is then the high-profile prestige and the pr industry and media-generated excitement that are such powerful draws for attracting and motivating volunteers. Volunteers who - it has to be remembered - are doing it all for a short, intensive, and high-personal-reward period.

Asking someone to turn up again and again for far less prestigious affairs in what are by definition anti-social hours for a short couple of bursts of exchanges with patrons is an altogether different affair.

Having said all that Staler, I repeat that I found your points thought-provoking. My own little initiative was borne of having witnessed a lack of such engagement in other venues (mostly I have to say in London venues). Theatre operators, management and supporters must always be alert to audience feedback – including when it comes ‘from the stalls’ ;-)

Paul Brownsey said...

It would be good if house staff asked us if there was anything they could do to enhance our enjoyment by way of things like remonstrating with or even evicting chatterers or bag-rustlers or mobile-users. In my experience, staff never use their initiative to quieten such disturbers of the peace. The victim is left to complain and then is apt to be treated as if it were her or his fault, e.g. by being moved to a worse seat.

Statler said...


Thanks for taking the time to give such a comprehensive response to our post. It's always interesting to hear how things look from the 'inside'. The way you talk about speaking to audiences is exactly the kind of thing I'd like to see more of, and it can result in conversations that both parties can learn something from. But how common do you think that is? I agree entirely that there are risks of tipping into USA style annoyance but I think that as there are only limited times available for such interaction it wouldn't attain that repetitive, automatic tone.

I also appreciate that the Olympics etc have an in-built advantage in generating enthusiasm for staff, volunteers and visitors - not to mention the funding issue. But I think there are shows that can produce that same kind of buzz - among theatre audiences at least. I don't think the conversation needs to be about the current show - it can be just as effective talking about shows people have seen or are looking forward to. I've got no doubts that the front of house role is hard work and often unappreciated but for some at least, I'd have thought chatting to audiences could be the 'fun' part of the job.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

@ Paul

That's a whole other discussion. I wouldn't disagree but I think FoH staff are in a very awkward position on this one, and in the end we need to remember that the real problem is the person causing the disruption.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts on this interesting thread...
Firstly as a member of the FOH team in a Glasgow theatre I can assure you that very few of the FOH staff work there for the money - with the possible exception of Christmas time the long breaks between productions and seasons mean that no one could realistically afford to rely on their wages from the work.
Secondly I think that perhaps you ought to try engaging the FOH in conversation yourself - you'll find that the staff are very happy to talk about the work on stage and seasons in general. Theatre offers a more objective and potentially intimidating experience than sporting events - audiences who don't go to the theatre often can feel a little stupid if they're told a show is amazing and then they personally don't like it. FOH staff will take your lead in the conversation. There's also a reluctance from most members of the press and reviewers to discuss the shows they are going to review and a taboo around approaching reviewers - as long term reviewers you must appreciate that people do recognise you and don't want to affect your reviews.
Finally - of course - there is the current financial crisis. It's easier for cash strapped theatres to cut their temporary FOH staff than those employed on a permanent basis. As a result there is simply less time and less opportunity for FOH to take the time to engage with their audiences.