First Night Nerves

Last night was my first shift on the Front of House volunteer rota at the wonderful theatre I will be helping out at over the coming months. To say that I was a little nervous would be an understatement. As with any new job, my first day was filled with introductions, instructions and explanations that can be hard to remember fully. What is needed is experience of carrying out the tasks to allow repetition to lodge the information firmly in memory to be recalled without thinking. This can only be achieved over time.

The tasks that I was required to complete were not arduous but they were new, and I have never attempted to do anything like this before. It is a long time since I have chosen to put myself this far out of my comfort zone.

I calm my nerves and build my resolve to succeed by preparing as best I can beforehand. Thus I spent some time yesterday afternoon sorting through the little things that I could anticipate may be issues. I dislike driving, particularly when I am not familiar with the area or when traffic is busy. I live in a rural village whereas the theatre is seventeen miles away in the nearest city. When I go there I will often catch a train to avoid the need to drive, but this is not always possible late at night when scheduled train services are few and far between.

When I have driven in the past I have always parked my car in the same place simply because I know where the car park is. The parking charges are high here however, so I spent yesterday researching alternatives and, having found a couple of viable options, carefully planned and memorised the route so that I could navigate on my own in busy traffic. I know that most people take this sort of thing in their stride; I do not.

Having prepared the family dinner and left my daughter to serve it up, I departed feeling very on edge. It was a beautiful, sunny evening and the drive was, thankfully, trouble free. I found my way through the maze of streets and one way systems without difficulty. Although traffic was heavy I was not bothered by aggressive tailgaters, impatient to get me out of their way. The car park appeared where expected and spaces were available. The first challenge of the evening had been accomplished.

I had a little time before the pre show staff meeting to check out the best route from theatre to car park. I expected it to be dark when I emerged from the show so wished to walk on lit and busy paths. In the event I was released at dusk; the joys of these long, summer days. There were still plenty of people around so I was comfortable on my journey which was a welcome, short, pleasant and relaxing stroll after the challenges of the evening.

So, what did my evening entail? Arriving at the theatre I found everything shut off, as I should have anticipated, to prevent members of the public entering before show time. I should have just walked in, but made the mistake of asking the staff at the booking desk if I may do so. They had never heard of the volunteer scheme and told me to wait outside, taking me to be a member of the audience. They were busy and disinterested in the explanation I attempted to give.

I dithered before deciding that I couldn’t be late on my first night. Gathering my courage as best I could I walked through and round the barrier into a room full of Front of House staff just as the meeting began. Although I received a few curious looks I was not challenged and, at a suitable moment in the briefing, was introduced. It was a relief to be expected by the manager giving the briefing who then took me in hand to ensure that I knew what to do and where to be throughout the evening.

From there my job began. Of the dozen or so people I was introduced to I remember barely a couple of names; I have never been good at remembering names. At first I felt foolish standing in the foyer greeting strangers, checking their tickets and ensuring that they knew how to find their way to their seats. It helped though that all the people I encountered throughout the evening were friendly and polite, if a little curious. This volunteer experiment is as new for the theatre as it was for me.

The show itself, Bernard Shaw’s Candida, was very enjoyable. Part of my job is to ensure that the audience abide by the rules, particularly as regards photography, and to check that nobody becomes unwell or requires assistance during the performance. Watching the audience watching the show meant that I was unable to immerse myself fully in the play as I normally would. However, I was able to appreciate the skill of the players even if I missed some of the nuances of the dialogue.

I was particularly impressed with Christopher Godwin, who was playing Mr Burgess. He was on stage having had 48 hours to learn the part (including opening night) following the unexpected, sudden departure of the original member of the cast due to family illness. He fully deserved the extra applause he was given at curtain call.

I felt rather foolish walking the designated route around the theatre during the interval to allow myself to be seen by the audience as other staff members carried out their tasks in the bars and selling tubs of ice cream. As I was called upon several times for information this must have been of some use to the patrons. I am so unused to putting myself in a position where I need to be seen; normally I prefer invisibility.

Overall then, I enjoyed the experience and feel that I fulfilled the purpose for which I was taken on. I gained a better understanding of how the smooth cogs of a working theatre are oiled to enable patrons to relax and enjoy their experience. I also got to meet some lovely people and to watch the show; all the reasons why I took on this role were ticked.

Having handed back my staff badge and distinguishing shoulder bag, I collected my things and returned to my car. The main road that I use to travel into the city was by this time closed due to roadworks, so I had to find my way home by an alternative route. This stressed me a little (I am such a wuss) but was accomplished without incident. I arrived home to a silent house with all my family retired peacefully to bed.

Due to forthcoming family holidays, my next night ‘on duty’ is a month away. Next time should be easier as there will be fewer unknowns. I am looking forward to it already.

The Georgian terrace of Royal Crescent (Bath, ...

Playing my part

‘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.

English: Entrance to the Theatre Royal, Bath