Front-Of-House Matters! (What makes a theatre's foyer/bar/box office/cloakroom/restaurant awful or awesome?)

Clare Lovell, 7 October 2012

Attendees: Clare, Sandra, Geraldine, Karen, Harry, Nicky, Neil, Gareth, Sarah & others.

Clare raised this as The REP will reopen next year with a changed front-of-house space and are keen to make the most of it. Sandra was interested for the same reasons as The Edge has recently received funding to improve their space.

People talked about the importance of a place feeling immediately friendly and of having a personality. Sandra described this as being a market stall, not a shopping centre.

Everybody talked about the importance of good signage and of staff being available to act as ‘human signage’. Although important to get the right balance. When The New Alexandra theatre put somebody immediately in front of the doors to fulfil this function, many people found it too in-your-face and off-putting. ‘Don’t brand at me!'

Sandra cited natural light as being a strong attraction and said this was one of the things that The REP's foyer had always done well.

Several people mentioned the recent Guardian article about the Artistic Director ripping tickets and interacting face to face with audience members. Everybody was very in favour of this and we talked a bit about how possible it was for Senior Management to shadow Frontline Staff.

'It's important to make audiences feel like stakeholders.'

Expectations of the space play strongly into their reactions to it. Clare and Geraldine talked a bit about their different experiences presenting work in the A E Harris versus The Old Rep Theatre and at The Courtyard versus The RST. Established spaces bring greater expectations of formality.

Vicky talked about the difficulty of running a space that has to deal with such extreme spikes and lulls of activity and how best to handle a place that can be packed to the gills in the evening, but incredibly quiet during the day.

Many people talked about how outdoor spaces feel friendlier and how this is something we should be using wherever possible (subject to the British weather!)

Squares, courtyards, patios and roofs were all cited as feeling fun and informal. (The view from rooftops were also given as something that could attract people to a space.)

Pop-up spaces can feel very approachable, especially to people who may not think of themselves as theatre goers. The National Theatre's Inside Out scheme was cited as a good example of this. With the pop-up cafe using furniture from the prop store attracting new people to it.

Two theatres mentioned as doing catering well were the New Vic and the Liverpool Everyman. Harry said that the New Vic feels like ‘a restaurant with a theatre attached’ and Clare said that the Everyman bistro hit a nice balance between being affordable/special, cosy/exclusive.

Sandra talked about using front-of-house spaces for photography exhibitions, both to draw new people to the venue and to increase the value to people already there. She also talked about the ways this altered the flow of people when she tried it at THSH and how that could be done more deliberately.

Karen talked about her experiences front of house with people who are embarrassed to ask about toilets and emphasised the need for signposting.

Everybody said free wifi was a big draw, but useless unless you advertised having it.

Karen said that allowing people into the theatre space between shows helped sell tickets. People were more likely to book after seeing the space.

Comfy seating makes such a difference. So does a comfy temperature. It's hard to feel comfy with your coat on.

Harry asked about having stuff for families and Nicky said that while the RSC have a variety of things (books, toys, activities) the colouring sheets are more appreciated than anything else by a huge margin.

Books needn't just be available for children. Could a foyer be a BookCrossing venue?

Karen talked about the importance of communicating what's available. There's no use providing awesome things if nobody knows to use them.

There was some talk of ‘paths of desire’. Nobody uses the Swan entrance at The RSC, they all come in through the front door. There's always a longer queue at The REP for the ground floor toilets. Is the answer better signposting to the extra entrances/toilets or making the ones people have chosen to use bigger?

Geraldine talked about using the company as a way of providing extra value to bars and restaurants. People are attracted by the idea that they might see a star. Giving the performers a discount to The RSC's bar got them out of The Dirty Duck.

Harry talked about the importance of the soft-spaces like cafes and gift shops as a way of getting non-attenders into a theatre building. Karen said that having the shop right by the door was psychologically valuable because people know they're allowed to be there and just look around. Nicky said that if people have to ask “Am I allowed in?” or “Are you open?” then your venue is failing at something important.

Several people discussed the different names and roles of cafes/restaurants/bars.

Why differentiate if they serve the same function. How can you make it clear that the ‘bar’ space is also a daytime or family friendly venue? Naming and clarity of function matters.

Clare talked about people who ‘camp’ in cafes and restaurants and their value in making a space seem used in the daytime, even if they don't spend much.

Geraldine said that there was a lot the theatre sector could learn from museums and galleries when it came to cafes.

Harry talked about the problems with ‘flipping’ a space. Trying to make it a cafe in the day and a restaurant at night. How do you signify that the role or atmosphere has changed. Is it possible to operate day and night pricing or should you find a compromise in the middle? Or just choose one to focus on?

Karen talked about theming a space for a more attractive experience.

Neil talked about how European theatres with greater subsidy can afford to overlook the front-of-house experience, but that in Britain it's vital.

Karen talked about how changing the usher's uniforms at The RSC changed how the audience members reacted to them. Many older audience members were more respectful when the uniform was shirt and waistcoat than when it was a branded t-shirt.

Neil talked about people's reluctance to go to WAC because it was on a university campus and for many people that made it feel like an intimidating or private space.

And then we had to break for lunch. I'm keen to hear more views, so if you've got something to say on the subject please comment below or tweet me on @clarelovell.



restaurant, foyer, cafe, front-of-house, friendly, Ushers, bar, ushers

Comments: 1

Simon Harding, 1 February 2017

We've just been bashing through the results of our annual theatre survey and it seems that the absence or presence of a smile and a piece of timely advice from the Front of House staff will go a massive way to making the whole theatre experience awful or awesome. Makes sense really. The good news is that it is cheaper than, redoing the foyer, ripping out uncomfortable seats, providing more loos or, heaven forbid, dropping bar prices!