Ushers (Shush!) What Are They Good For?

Elspeth Murray, 31 July 2012

I called this session because I have been touring stage manager for The Man Who Planted Trees for 6 years and have visited very many venues (both large & small in the UK, Europe and North America) and had the chance to reflect on how different places put together the ingredients that make theatre.

The front-of-house culture varies a lot in different venues. Often ushers are welcoming for the audience and well-co-ordinated and respectful from our point of view as a visiting company. At the other end of the spectrum, occasionally ushers present the biggest headache of the day, whether that's by failing en masse to ask a parent of a crying baby to step outside and come back later, or (once only) by seating several hundred school children while leaving teachers to stand in the aisles. (That condundrum took a while to untangle!)

I was worried that the title of the session implied that I thought all ushers were good for nuthin' (say it again). But no! I was going for the punchy provocative title that asked a serious question - what ARE ushers really good for?

The great thing was being able to invite several of the Lyceum's ushers to join the session. We began by sharing stories. How FANTASTIC - by the way - to have the opportunity to do this: to take an issue that I've been mulling over in the dark in dozens and dozens of different theatres and being able to bring it out into the light and share it with others. Thank you Devoted & Disgruntled!

Yes Ushers' Shush

We talked about the chatting, rustling, crying. And how it's worse at Christmas time. And how there's only so much you can do. And about the risk-benefit calculation that goes into usher intervention. And about how sometimes it's teachers who take the shushing upon themselves to such a degree that they knock the responsive stuffing out of a good humoured audience of kids. Bee? Bonnet? Moi? ;-)

A Light In The Darkness

Those torches are handy and are even brighter than the mobile phone glare or the cheeky camera screen. The torch can reach where ushers cannot and have helpfully pin-pointedly shamed an audience member heedlessly doing noisy or bright things in the middle of the quiet darkness upon which theatre magic depends. And they're handy tools in the artful process of seating a lot of people swiftly without leaving any empty seats. (American's think it's really funny btw that we call them ‘torches’ because they call them ‘flash lights’. Oh and very many ushers in America are retired and are volunteers. So there you go. But the same principles apply.)

What Makes Ushering Easier?

  • Audiences who are well-versed in theatre etiquette.

  • Effective and appropriate pre-show notices or reminders.

  • Them torches.

  • Them little radios.

  • Other ushers.

  • Good training.
    What Makes Good Training?

  • It's not patronising.

  • It's appropriate to the role.

  • It helps build the team.

  • Being challenged “in at the deep end” is appreciated.

  • Deals with a variety of scenarios.

  • Good training is thorough. Loyalty & Expertise

    There is clearly a lot of loyalty among the Lyceum ushers. They talked about instances where they had carried out their duties in costume and had even been part of the drama onstage, responding to instructions from a performer in the case of The Infamous Brothers Davenport. In this case, their loyalty became a passion for the show and they were actively promoting it a lot more than other productions.

    Most ushers come to the job because of a love of theatre and live peformance. Most

ushers have seen a LOT of shows. Most ushers see certain shows over and over again. There's a LOT of expertise there that isn't often acknowledged.

There's potential to make better use of ushers' first-hand experience of audience behaviour and of many performances.

  • Would visiting companies like to know what aspects of a show the audience talk about as they're leaving the theatre? (Yes!)*

  • Would resident companies like valuable feedback from experienced outside eyes? (Well?)

  • Would marketing departments be able to benefit from ushers' appreciation of the kind of things that make an audience go ooh and ahh? (They should!)

    *At the Seattle Children's Theatre the Front-Of-House Manager would collect overheard feedback from his/her team and email it to me to include in our show report. Really useful!

    If this kind of thing happened, “Then we'd feel like we had a voice” said one of the ushers.

  • What about the dress rehearsals?

  • What about the first night parties?

• What about ushers' potential to help be a bridge between the various parts of the theatre family?

So - what are ushers good for? LOADS!

Thank you to everyone who took part :-)

Jude Durnan
Laura Knowles Charlotte Anderson Joanne Sykes Naomi O Kelly Jane Howie
Thom Dibdin Elspeth Murray