Written by Martin Gooseflesh
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Tuesday, 18 December 2007

image for "Have you got any oxygen?" - An actor working as a theatre usher in London's West End "How dare you sell seats like these?"

"Hi diddley dee, an actor's life for me."

So sings Honest John in Disney's Pinocchio, followed by a long list of reasons why being an actor is great. The sad reality for anyone brave (or stupid) enough to actually choose the actor's life for them, is that unless you are extremely lucky you are going to spend a large amount of time as an out of work actor.

Now being an unemployed actor (please forget anything you may have heard about resting) leaves you with a small number of options. You can:

A) Swan about all day like Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I, getting drunk and living in squalor.

B)
sign on the dole (Essentially the same as option A except you can't afford to get drunk).

C) Find an ordinary job.

Let's be honest. We all want to have a full stomach, stay healthy, clothe our nakedness and have a roof over our heads. For all of these luxuries you need money. Man cannot live on artistic temperament alone. Unless you are lucky enough to have an independent income (those of you with a smug smile can stop reading now) you have to obtain money from somewhere. Option A is a non starter and option B, although it does include cash, is little better, giving you just about enough to live like a monk. This leaves only option C.

Life as an actor means you have to, in the most part, attend auditions and castings, sometimes at quite short notice. It is therefore handy if you are in a position to go to these and don't have to mess about juggling other commitments in order to get there. Consequently many actors choose to work mostly in the evenings, leaving the days free for any castings that may arise. If you are an actor living in London one of the most popular jobs is working as an usher in a West End theatre.

There are over forty theatres in the West End and they all have a high turn over of staff so it's reasonably easy to find a job quickly. The work is usually only around three or four hours a night plus two afternoons and you don't need any qualifications - which is useful as many actors don't have any. You do however need a high boredom threshold as you will normally have to watch the same show over and over again for months (or in some cases years if you're really unlucky).

Easy, if a bit tedious, you might think and in essence you'd be right but this does not take into account one very important factor; something that will change everything. You will be working with THE GENERAL PUBLIC!

Every single one of us is at some time a member of the general public (unless the Queen is reading this) but the fact cannot be denied that when you work in a customer service industry a great many of the people you meet turn out to be utterly stupid. This is particularly the case in a West End theatre. At almost every performance you get the feeling that most of the audience have just come from a village idiot convention where they were competing in the "who's the biggest idiot?" contest. Don't whatever you do allow yourself to think that you've just been asked the most ridiculous question you will ever hear; you can be sure that somebody will top it later in the week.

Now it can be argued that a large number of customers are foreign tourists in an unfamiliar place and that many of them do not speak English well. This is quite true and you have to allow for confusion caused by the language barrier, frustrating as it may be. However the vast majority of customers do speak English as a first language and it is often the case that you have far more problems with these people than with those you can't speak to. It is generally accepted that your customers will check their coats, bags and brains at the door and that once inside even the simplest of tasks defeat them.

To explain, let us start with arriving at the theatre. It is usually the case that the customer is asked to present their ticket as they enter. The usher on the door checks it, tears off the stub and gives it back, indicating to the customer which part of the theatre to go to. On arrival at the correct level another usher will ask to see the ticket in order to direct the customer to their seat. This can be much more problematic than it would seem as many people manage to loose their ticket in that short journey from the front door. Of course they have no idea of what their seat number is and as they search through pockets and bags and fail to find anything, the thought forms in their mind that the usher on the front door must have kept their ticket (they couldn't possibly have lost it). This thought quickly works on their mind until they believe that they can actually remember that the usher did not give the ticket back. There now follows five minutes of fun during which the customer will get more and more irate at the usher's suggestion that they look again.

" The other guy kept it. I remember I gave him my ticket but he didn't give me it back. I'm telling you he kept it."

Eventually the ticket will suddenly appear and your customer will have to back down and accept they were wrong. If you are lucky they will even be a little embarrassed but not for very long. The one thing they will never do is say something like: "I'm really sorry, I made a mistake. I shouldn't have shouted at you." They will just go off to their seat as if nothing has happened.

Sometimes the ticket has been genuinely lost. In these cases you have to spend a while trying to figure out what the correct seat number is. If this cannot be achieved the customer may even be asked to leave (which can be quite satisfying for an usher after the fuss that's been caused). On other occasions the missing ticket will be found on the floor somewhere around the theatre.

Assuming the customer makes it to auditorium, your problems as an usher are certainly not over; they may have only just begun.

Now we must deal with seating. Seats in West End theatres could not generally be described as roomy. Most theatres date from the 19th century and though they have been modified a little over the years, the seats are only just wide enough for the average person to cope. Leg room is not great and comes at a premium. Human body size has changed quite a lot since the theatres were built and many people today find that they are too long in the leg to sit with any degree of comfort; others find that they are simply (let's not beat about the bush) too fat to fit into the seat at all. More than once have I seen people actually stuck and needing help from a family member to leave their seat.

People deal with this problem in a number of ways; often they will try and get the ushers on their side, being all pally and asking for a favor. Other times they will just get angry and make a scene, demanding a new seat. The one thing you will definitely discover is that there seems to be a alarming number of theatre goers who choose to see a play immediately after having had knee surgery and are therefore totally incapable of bending one of their legs. Surely having to bend your legs is a fairly basic assumption when going to the theatre.

There is also the problem of double booking - a seat being sold twice. This can arise for a number of reasons. Often a ticket agency will mistakenly sell a ticket with a seat number that has not been allocated to them. Of course a different agency has honestly sold that seat number and when both parties show up, you are faced with the task of finding out which of them has the right to use the seat. Those who loose out may have to leave the theatre. Naturally the loosers are not impressed and tend to treat the usher as if they were to blame.

Sometimes you will be told that someone will be arriving with the wrong seat number on their ticket. you have to inform them of the mistake and show them to the correct seat. This has its good and bad side. If the change of number is better than the customer expected no problem but if, as is usually the case, the change is for the worse then again you have an irate person calling you all the names under the sun.

The problems of seating an audience are further exacerbated by customers arriving on the wrong date. Now I accept that the usher is checking tickets for reasons exactly like this and often you will catch a ticket with the wrong date before the customer gets to the auditorium. Unfortunately in a busy theatre with many tickets looking the same sometimes those with the wrong date slip the net; surely the customer also has a duty to make certain that all is correct. It is amazing the number of people who spend a not inconsiderable sum of money - maybe £50-60 per person - to see a show and never look at the ticket until they are actually in the theatre, minutes before curtain up. Why oh why don't these people check? They turn up for birthdays, anniversaries, even Valentines day to find that due to a mistake they have tickets for a different night. Sometimes the tickets were bought months in advance and the idiots have simply forgotten what date they actually wanted to go. I once had a large party who had arrived with tickets that were exactly one month out of date. The organiser of the group had kept the tickets in a sealed envelope in a draw for six months. They got into the auditorium but ultimately had to leave. People even manage to come to the wrong theatre sometimes sitting through the first half of a musical when they wanted to see a straight play. It beggars belief but it's true.

"Surely there can't be more problems!" I hear you cry. Well yes there can.

The highest level of the theatre, the balcony, has situations all its own. To start with for some bizarre reason the balcony seems to attract all those people who are the very least able to cope with being up there; the old and frail, the extremely obese, those on crutches or with casts on their legs, asthmatics etc. As they come puffing and panting to the top, every second or third person will say with a smile: "Have you got any oxygen?"]or words to that effect. If I had a pound for every time I was asked for oxygen or told it was a long way up I'd be a very rich man.

I have, of course saved the two biggest problems in the balcony till last. These don't arise until the customer has made it inside the auditorium and has seen just how far away from the stage they are going to be. They often feel cheated by the position of their seat and another popular line you will hear with tedious regularity goes something like: "This is the worst seat I've ever had. How dare you sell seats like these?"

The temptation here is to say that you, being only an usher, did not sell them the seat and anyway what the Hell did they expect from the cheapest set in the house? If they hadn't been quite so miserly they would be able to see better and to be honest you couldn't dive a damn really. Of course, fun though it may be you would probably loose the job and it just isn't worth that. So again you have to go into placation mode and as nicely as possible tell them that nobody is going to do anything at all and basically it's that seat or nothing.

We now come to the single biggest problem in the balcony - VERTIGO!

Heights are a problem for many people and a genuine fear of height can be very debilitating. So why, when booking a seat, do people with vertigo fail to ask: How high up is it? At almost every show you will have to deal with at least one person who walks in to the auditorium and collapses in a fit of panic when faced with the height. You have to deal with every form that vertigo can take from hysterical tears to being literally unable to move. of course this must not be allowed to hold up the show and if the sufferer arrives very close to curtain up, you have to do your best to get them out before the rest of the audience are too disturbed.

Then of course there are the fakers who claim vertigo but show none of the signs and are just using it as an excuse to try and upgrade their seat. It very quickly becomes easy to spot fakers but of course you can't actually accuse them of faking, just in case you're wrong. You are left just politely telling them there is nothing you can do.

If all the problems I have stated happen at the same time you can be almost a nervous wreck before the evening is an hour old. Eventually, however, problems or not, the show has to begin.

As soon as the lights go down you will almost certainly be called on the radio that a party of ten are on their way. For the next fifteen minutes, in fact, you usually have to cope with a steady stream of people who have not managed to make it on time, despite the fact that the doors have been open for at least an hour. These people will often protest that they thought the show started at 8pm even though it says 7.30 on the ticket (oh I forgot, nobody looks at tickets). I pointed this out to one customer who quite honestly replied that she thought that time was for the trailers. I can just see the casts of a few upcoming shows getting on stage before the main event to give highlights of forthcoming attractions.

Anyway now you have to seat these latecomers in the dark, using a torch, trying not to disturb the rest of the audience too much. This is very often impossible as Sod's law decrees that most latecomers will be right in the middle of the row. This means people have to get up to allow the new arrivals access. This can be difficult but even now there can be one more problem to overcome. Many of the audience are now in the wrong seats.

This problem while not exclusive to the balcony is much greater up there and stems from two different reasons. Firstly if there is space, many people who are not happy with their own seat move to a better location as soon as the lights go down. They never seem to consider the possibility of late arrivals. Secondly, when you arrive with a latecomer to find somebody there already you will often be told they are in the wrong seat because: "someone else is in my seat."
Yes folks, the wonderful general public; arriving to find their seat occupied they don't find a member of staff; that would be far too sensible. Instead they just sit in any seat they find. So now, with the show up and running, you have to move people out of seats in order to sit others. then take those people back to where they should be, only to find that seat occupied and round and round you go. I once had to move a chain of eight sets of people who were in the wrong place. Before long, despite your best efforts, some really helpful audience member will say:
"Do you mind! I'm trying to watch the show!"
At this point you're about ready to cry but being a professional you just have you carry on. Eventually everyone who can be seated has been and you have a short respite before the interval, more banal questions and a hundred people to direct to the toilet.

The end of the show sees you scrabbling under seats looking for lost mobile phones, travel pass pieces of jewelry etc. then at last you can go home - You'll do it all again tomorrow.

Oh and to the man who went to the Gents and left a pair of underpants filled with human waste for me to throw away; Thank you Sir, you made my night.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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