‘All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players’
The theatre represents a microcosm of society. It exists as a thing of elegance and beauty, but much of what is experienced and enjoyed by the individuals who pass through it’s rooms is an illusion. A good performance will leave the participants feeling cultivated, educated, entertained and sated. They may then walk away; return to the lives that they live unseen; gain from contemplation of the experience or set it aside as just another memory, soon forgotten in the bustle of future encounters.
In this costly facade there will be the few who will shine and the many who happily follow the cues of the crowd. Each fulfils their role, then bows out feeling richer in mind and spirit. Live theatre has a buzz that cannot be conveyed by cinema or television; a personal interaction between audience and players. Yesterday I experienced the other side to theatre; the workers who toil diligently in the background to make it all happen.
In order to be accepted as a volunteer Audience Host, a role that I had applied for a few weeks ago, I was required to attend an afternoon training session at the beautiful theatre located in our nearest city. I was nervous and excited, looking forward to the prospect but having to make myself continue when it would have been so much easier to simply continue with my quiet life as it is. The personal challenges that I faced were numerous: leaving my children to arrive home from school with no adult to greet them or cook their dinner; driving to the bustling city and finding a suitable parking space on my own; walking into the theatre and introducing myself to the staff running the training and the other volunteers participating in the scheme. I had to push myself, ignore my anxieties and make myself go through the motions required of the part with apparent confidence and grace.
I strongly dislike being late for appointments so arrived much too early. Knowing that this was likely to be the case I was prepared and spent an enjoyable hour sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee and my book. Arriving at the theatre I then settled into an interesting period of people watching as I assessed the other volunteers and tried to remember the names of the members of staff we were introduced to. It was a fascinating afternoon.
The theatre itself is a beautiful, old building with a warren of corridors, staircases and both public and private doors that the volunteers were required to get to know. One of the main aspects of the role I was there to learn was the ability to direct members of the audience, who I must now refer to as patrons, to wherever they wish to go. We were shown the restaurants, bars, cloakrooms and stores; we were instructed in how to use the lift, how to access the members rooms, how to remember the names of each level of seating and the best way to reach each area; we were taken backstage and allowed to view the theatre from the actor’s perspective, a first for me.
As with any role, costume and props are important. As members of the Front of House team we must be visible to those who require our services but merge into the provisions of the building. The patrons are as important as the players in the experience that everyone will remember. The hosts role is to facilitate; to be available discreetly to ensure that all needs are met before they become issues; that issues, when they arise, are dealt with quietly and efficiently with minimum disruption to others. When at all possible, the illusion of the patron’s experience must be maintained whatever unforeseen circumstances occur.
After training had been completed, each volunteer was issued with a ticket for the evening performance and dismissed. Already some of the volunteers were deciding that the role was not for them; I remained eager to take part. Stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine I walked around the city centre watching the workers as they hurried home, the school children as they congregated and parted, the young adults as they met up at the bars and restaurants, the elderly as they strolled and perused the menus outside the many eateries. I am so unused to such bustle it felt strange to be a part of it. I relished my invisibility as I familiarised myself with the streets and open spaces.
Returning to the theatre early to observe the Front of House staff dealing with the arrival of the patrons, I was able to fully appreciate the task that I will be taking on. Getting close to nine hundred people through the doors, up to the bars and on to their seats is quite a task and one that I had not observed fully whilst participating. This is the point of the Audience Host: to assist in providing a stress free environment, ensuring that the patrons may move smoothly to wherever they wish to go without realising that they are being assisted.
The show itself was well played, funny and highly entertaining. As instructed, I observed the contribution of the audience as much as the players; their reaction to the play is key to creating the atmosphere that all should enjoy. Sitting up in the gods amongst a large group of school children it was hard to appreciate the nuances and interplay between actors and patrons; the reactions of those sitting closer to the stage were quite different to those so far away. The extra money I have spent in the past ensuring that I may enjoy a show from a good seat has been well spent.
It felt strange to leave the theatre alone. I rarely drive in the dark but the journey home passed without incident. I will get used to walking through a city on my own and gain confidence in dealing with the more aggressive drivers in time.
The illusion of my very different, challenging but enjoyable day lasted until I walked through my front door. It was late, close to midnight; lights were out and my family were all in bed; evidence of their day was all around. I observed the school shoes kicked off and abandoned on the kitchen floor, the used pots on the hob and dirty dishes abandoned on the side, the unwiped surfaces, the laundry taken off the line as requested but then left in the basket by the door. It would seem that I have my uses after all.
My day was interesting and I look forward to returning to the theatre as a member of staff, albeit unpaid and transitory. It is a role that I wish to play and I will do my best to perform well. As hoped, I feel that I have been shown a different side to the theatre experience. I look forward to being a part of the invisible team.