OPINION: Drumroll, please

Friday, November 02, 2012

Happily, it has come to the point where attendance at the theatre is being taken for granted. Great entertainment and a worthwhile night out is expected on demand. However, having started to overlook the extracurricular aspects that go along with a night out I wanted to re-discover exactly what makes going to the theatre an extraordinary experience amongst the seemingly routine tasks of everyday life.

So what makes a night at the theatre special? How crucial is the performance itself to the whole experience or is it only the performance that matters and the friendliness of ushers and comfort of the seating are irrelevant?

‘Drumroll’ is a popular culture term that has caught on recently to describe the part of an experience which is considered the most exciting, that which precedes the event itself.

This is the moment leading up to a first kiss or the moment when the lights fade to black before Bon Jovi appear on stage, when your heart begins to race and adrenalin occupies your senses. Only the scene of a theatre ‘drumroll’ is the random conversation started with a stranger as you find your seats or hearing the housekeeping announcement over the PA as the house lights start to fade.

Greeted by an usher as you walk from the darkness outside through the doors into the light of the vast theatre foyer is a welcome precursor to the performance and an essential part of the experience. The ushers are as excited to be there as you are, they have willingly volunteered their time as a result of their passion for performing arts and their enthusiasm is rarely overlooked as they spruik performance programmes and upcoming shows.

They glide around the foyer like ice-skaters allowing minimal disruption as patrons wait for their friends to arrive.

As performance time draws near they initiate a pathway to the theatre doors. Seasoned patrons recognise this as a subtle announcement signifying the opening of the auditorium doors moments before a booming voice through the foyer speakers openly declares it to the entire room.

As a few late arrivals burst through the doors and race up the mezzanine stairs the ushers are ready with torches in hand to help them find their seats. With a supernatural ability to see in the dark and bound up multiple stairs like a mountain lion this is the call to action they wait patiently at the end of the aisles for, to ensure that every patron gets to enjoy the performance as much as possible.

You take your seats excited for the performance and the lights fade as the performers begin to appear on stage while the Front of House staff are preparing for their next major appearance during the interval.

After briefly catching their breath they are already executing actions to prepare the room for the 20-minute mid-performance onslaught. They attach themselves to brooms and vacuums and go in search of dust and debris, moving around the vacant foyer and dry bars as if it were a dance floor and the brooms their waltz partners.

They trudge back and forth from the freezing temperatures of the beverage storeroom with cases of liquid and savoury treats. Once they have refreshed the room and restocked the paper towels they prepare coffee, wine and beer for those clever enough to pre-order their interval refreshments.

As the sound of the auditorium doors burst open they take a deep breath and ready themselves for the interval rush.

The attendees are immediately split into three groups. There are those who are comfortable in their seats and plan to stay through interval listening to the generic audio track or relaying initial thoughts of the performance to those who surround them. Then there are those who need to stretch their legs, take in some fresh air or occupy the foyer while enjoying their drinks.  The remainder make haste for the toilets after enjoying their drinks before the performance commences.

As the brief interval continues, bar staff are working frantically to ensure everyone’s request is fulfilled while many ushers have remained in the theatre auditorium to gauge the reactions of the lingering patrons to the performance.

Once the curtain has fallen for the last time and the final attendees have left, the ushers inspect the vacant auditorium and collect any discarded items left behind. Proceeding through the crowd they farewell all who make eye contact and present optimism that you will return.

I am reminded of a television commercial for a sports shoe which follows an athlete as they prepare for an event. Running, swimming, training and as the athlete appears on the start line, the pistol fires and the screen cuts to black and the copy reads ‘What happens next doesn’t matter.’ The lead up to the event on many occasions is more important than the event itself.

Impressions of a performance are generally occupied by two points: the performance itself and your overall experience of the evening. However, from brief conversations with patrons the performance can be greatly affected by the preceding elements. A bad coffee or unfriendly staff member can turn a good performance into a forgettable experience very quickly.

I have a favourite theory that suggests if a job is being performed properly and efficiently then on most occasions it will go unnoticed, but this is not be taken as a suggestion that recognition is not appropriate. It is in fact that appreciation is more appropriate.

The absence of disappointment is, in broad terms, what front of house staff strive to achieve. If you collect your tickets, order a drink, receive a programme and find your seats without giving any of the services you received a second thought then the goal has been achieved and the service staff can leave into the night with a smile on their face knowing that their job has been done.

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