As a Front of House worker, Emma Bentley isn’t happy about Rupert Goold’s tweet. Here, she discusses how staff might be able to do a job that pays their bills, whilst networking effectively.

I want to revolutionize the way everyone, from the artistic director to we – the front of house staff – think of service roles in theatres. We put ourselves down with things like: ‘I only sell programmes/make coffee/usher,’ but we’re there for a reason. We’re there to find some way to be in a theatre, even if it’s not initially doing what we love or trained for. I recently left my job working as a barista at the National Theatre. And it’s because I felt stuck.

So, as I am on the hunt for a new reliable service role/job, I ask myself: should I avoid theatres? I’ve worked in them pretty much non-stop since I was a teenager with my mum always encouraging me: “Get in there Ems – you never know who you might meet!” But as I look back at nearly ten years working in FOH roles, apart from my brilliant, inspiring colleagues, I realise I have made absolutely no useful connections. I’m starting to think, is it worth putting yourself in a situation where you are making an oat flat white for someone whose shoes you wish you were in?

After a tweet earlier in the year by Rupert Goold, Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, it seemed a lot of us were feeling gloomy about how commercial operations staff are viewed by creative staff in theatres. In this tweet, he complimented two members of staff who were leaving the Almeida, but in doing so described their old jobs as ‘house seat wranglers’ and ‘diary monkeys.’ He went on to define one of them as (having now left the theatre) a ‘proper writer and true artist’. Goold meant no harm by his tweet, but as I scroll through the 61 replies he has received, the majority of them angry, it’s blatant he has caused some.

Ellan Parry, Scenographer, Artist and Researcher breaks it down succinctly:

‘Intersections of class, gender, race, privilege + how recognition as ‘a proper writer + true artist’ requires patriarchal validation, while (trad. gendered) service roles are denigrated + devalued, summed up in under 280 characters.’

I know that had Rufus Norris openly described us at the NT as ‘house seat wranglers’, I probably would have left earlier than I did.

It’s irritating that Goold’s tweet suggests that working in a FOH role and being an artist cannot co-exist. The people ‘at the top’ may think about us in these maligned ways and unfortunately it seems there is little we can do about it, coming, as they are, from their own positions of privilege. Leaving angry comments on twitter isn’t going to change anything. What’s worse is we can see this from the fact that Goold or the Almeida has made no apology to the reaction. People like Goold will never understand all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into working in these jobs whilst simultaneously trying to be a ‘true artist.’ Perhaps if all ADs had to do a shift in the café or the box office it could help? Obviously their diary monkeys would have to work extremely hard to find a space in their schedules.

In the meantime, however, we can always forget about the ADs and network with our brilliant, talented colleagues. We’re all in the same leaky boat after all, so we might as well stick together. Regularly collaborating with work mates is what has kept me sane. There are so many different skills that people secretly hold and so endless opportunities for making new work are possible: short films, R&Ds, site specific pieces. Front of House Theatre Company, a collection of artists all working at the National Theatre and led by producer Helen Thomas, has proven that a company of FOH staff can come together to create magnificent shows. I have been a part of two new writing nights at the Vaults, one as an actor, one as a writer, and both have given me the opportunity to create something I am proud of. Companies like this should be nurtured and encouraged in every theatre. 

In an ideal world however, what would make FOH roles more appealing and perhaps even make us work more effectively (yes, happy staff = happy customers = MORE MONEY) is if connections between staff and creatives were made easier. Say for example, a monthly talk, free of charge with a resident director. Or the opportunity to use a rehearsal room once a month for your own project. Anything that would help the artists working FOH roles feel more integrated. I’m not saying let us run loose on the Olivier stage on a Sunday afternoon, just something where we can use our brains, because, believe it or not, we are not just MONKEYS or WRANGLERS.

Unfortunately, I’m sure it’s much easier for the top dogs to keep themselves separate from us lot doing the pot wash. But I will dream! And in the meantime I will start planning my own theatre for 2050 where all staff must rotate working all duties, so one day you’re sweeping the stage, the next you could be playing the lead. Who’s with me?