Manuel Muñoz writes about his experience working Front of House and the unacceptable, violent behaviour he and others have had to endure at the hands of audience members.
I’m sure many of you have worked Front of House at a theatre. Apart from the performers, we are the most visible, prominent faces and the ones who deal with audiences directly. Most of the time, we are also the ones at the receiving end of any problems, complaints and drama.
We all have stories. Ourselves and our colleagues have had to deal with all types of people and with all types of incidents: drunk audience members? Being insulted and yelled at? Being offered bribes to let people in the theatre once the show has begun? People desperately crying (and blaming you) because of a cast change? We’ve seen it all. Most of these stories are told as humorous anecdotes and we laugh at how ridiculous they are or at how horribly offensive a person was. The truth is, however, that during such incidents we have had to endure some kind of abuse. And in its immediate aftermath we have had to rationalise it, to accept it as ‘part of the job’. In other words, we consistently normalise unacceptable behaviour.
There are many articles out there that discuss audience etiquette, such as this one in The Stage and the ways venues try to minimise the impact of certain behaviours on the rest of the audience and the performance. Hence we have bans on photography in auditoriums during the show, occasional regulations on food and drink, and an array of different policies in relation to latecomers and readmittance. The latter two in particular are most prone to conflict. Large venues like the Royal Opera House operate a no-latecomer policy until a suitable break in the performance – that is, until the curtain is down, whether in a pause between scenes or an interval. Also, many theatres in the West-End allow latecomers to come in during the applause between songs. The same applies to readmittance: if you leave the auditorium, most likely you will not be allowed back in until the interval or again, a suitable break (this is defined by the venue, however). In any case, and for obvious reasons, policies on these two subjects are bound to bring trouble, and it is up to the Front of House staff to deal with it. The issue is not that we are there to enforce policies, but how the public react to them (and to us).
Less than three months ago, I had quite a long, but thankfully uneventful shift. It was a two-show day, and we were already halfway through the second show. It was too late for any latecomers to arrive, and all appeared to be calm. Suddenly, someone ran out of the auditorium and asked for the toilets. Being aware of policy, I told this person straight away they wouldn’t be able to go back in… Half an hour, an aggression and a call to the Police later, I wasn’t able to rationalise or laugh it off. It was terrifying. And because I assume all the regular abuse I get as ‘normal’, I didn’t see this particular situation as any different at first. Just another angry customer. Just a few insults, a few screams, and it’ll all go back to normal. In a split second, I was being choked against a wall and I was too stunned to react. I felt I was watching a film, that I wasn’t present. It all subsided very quickly thanks to my colleagues, but something inside me clicked. While I was calling the Police and providing information, I felt stupid, weak, and angry. Even though it wasn’t the most dangerous situation one can find themselves in, it was the most unsafe I’d ever felt.
I’m not writing this in order to play the victim. Rather, I’d like to highlight a couple of issues that are common practise for all Front of House workers. First, in small venues, there are very few members of staff to enforce policies. And if these are delicate ones, like no-latecomers or no-readmittance policies, that means only one or two people – usually with no managers, must deal with disruptive patrons. Also, smaller venues tend not to have security staff. Put together, having insufficient staff with no managers and no security means situations like the one above escalates to the point it did. We, as Front of House staff, should not have to deal with situations like this. Firstly, because we’re not being paid to put our physical integrity on the line and secondly, because staff – particularly in smaller venues, need more managerial and security support to enforce policies and lastly, because it all boils down to basic human decency. Why some behaviours are acceptable in a theatre and not elsewhere is something I’ll probably never comprehend.
Stories like the one I’ve shared only rarely happen. But they highlight wider issues within the industry and in society. We are put in the ‘line of fire’ and most of the time we are unequipped to be put there. Although larger venues do have more support in place, we are still left to deal with people that are ready to antagonise us the moment we try to impose a restriction. We encounter unruly, rude and abusive language and behaviour on a daily basis, and we are told to suck it up because ‘that’s the way it is’. It shouldn’t be. Coming up with strategies to normalise these situations is not enough. Audiences not only need to be more conscious, but theatre managers need to support their Front of House staff.
The solution, in my view, is not to relax policies to avoid conflict. After all, they’re in place to avoid unnecessary disruptions. We should have more support from management, particularly in smaller venues or at least we should be paid as duty managers given that we’re taking on manager duties in relation to complaints, difficult customers and customer safety. And also, it is paramount to ensure the safety of customers and staff, and that should be guaranteed by the presence or closeness of security staff. Other measures – better CCTV coverage, having a screen to allow latecomers to watch until they’re allowed in – are not as essential, but are desirable in all venues.
However, it comes without saying that the bulk of the responsibility lies with audiences and with our perception of what is and isn’t acceptable. Naming again the Royal Opera House, they’ve included the respectful treatment of staff as one of their policies – together with their no latecomers policy and that is printed on every performance brochure. It may be overlooked by many, but this little piece of text sets forth the idea that no abuse will be tolerated. And most importantly, it shows at least some intent from the company to protect their staff.