Jonathan Thompson, Head of Customer Services blogs about his challenging role looking after the running of Front of House.

Front of house is a pretty wide description of customer service in the theatre world, covering all our public areas, the auditorium and foyers and looking after the many thousands of patrons who come to the Hippodrome every year. With potentially 2,000 patrons walking through the doors of Birmingham Hippodrome on a daily basis working front of house is a fantastic challenge and every day is so different.

Jonathan pictured with pop superstar Kylie Minogue during her visit to see Dick Whittington in January.

With 18 full-time staff, 63 casual and 70 volunteers we are the faces of the Hippodrome and have to be fully prepared for any questions from customers . We are responsible for looking after the health and safety of our audience so communication is very important. We hold daily briefings so we know what’s happening in the building: if there is strobe lighting in the show, for instance, we would need to know in case we have any epileptic members of the audience; will any groups need particular help; or do we have any celebrities in to see a show (we recently had pop superstar Kylie Minogue in to see our Panto at Christmas!).

 One of the most challenging things we deal with is when a customer becomes unwell especially if it is during a performance and if they are sitting in the middle of a row. We are all very well practiced and complete training sessions with all of our First Aiders on a regular basis. This was put to the test only recently. I had just finished my 2 day refresher training course with St John’s Ambulance (this is done every 3 years) when we had an internal call to say that a gentleman had collapsed at our Stage Door. We rushed to the scene and discovered that the gentleman, an autograph hunter waiting for the Calendar Girls cast, was starting to lose consciousness and then stopped breathing altogether. We started CPR just before the ambulance service arrived with a Channel 5 film crew in tow! So not only were we dealing with a First Aid incident, but doing our bit for the Hippodrome’s PR too!

The gentleman is still in hospital but we are pleased to say that he’s made a fantastic recovery and is now on the waiting list for a heart by-pass.  I was particularly touched when his wife came in to see me and thanked me for saving her husband’s life. That will live with me forever.

We are very proud to have two Creative Apprentices working Front of House at the moment.  We were delighted when they were asked to represent the scheme and the Hippodrome at a national conference in London to talk about what they do and the skills they are gaining.  The scheme has encouraged 8 of our full time team to start NVQ level 2 qualifications as this can be completed and assessed while they are at work.

Birmingham Hippodrome has an access working group consisting of audience members, and representatives from the local community who are either visually impaired, deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or have impaired mobility. This group meets every few months with members of the theatre staff from all departments including myself. We discuss how we can improve our access services and encourage ideas and suggestions. Recently we found out that the some groups were struggling to find places to train their new guide dog puppies.  The theatre volunteered to help out and we recently welcomed 3 new puppies to the theatre so they could get used to lots of people, lights and sounds etc. The group also attended a Touch Tour (accessing the stage in advance of a show to obtain a sense of the space, the scenery and the props) and got to meet Marti Pellow, starring in Jekyll & Hyde, who came on stage to say hello to the group. And as a result of our last meeting we are now working with two local students who are going to film a guided tour of the theatre in sign language – do look out for this as it will be posted onto our website so patrons can watch it from home before coming here.

Puppies Diesel and Willow with their owners following the Touch Tour

With a constant stream of customers in the building there are many items that are left behind and are destined for our infamous lost property box. Many of these are claimed on the evening of the performance itself but some are never claimed and after a period of time we donate these to a local charity shop. So far this year we have a total of 17 mobile phones, 21 cardigans, 23 pairs of glasses, 50 hats, 53 umbrellas, 79 scarves and 116 gloves! Some of the more unusual items include a single black sock, a foot off a table, a gold coloured cushion, a black patent ladies leather shoe and a single raw potato! One customer was very happy after we reunited her with both her wedding and engagement rings – I don’t think her husband knew she’d lost them!

We’ve just announced our Cinderella panto cast and we are looking forward to welcoming back Brian Conley as Buttons this Christmas with Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Christmas is our busiest time of the year with two performances pretty much every day including Sundays so we have to be really efficient, quick and on the ball. It’s a long run and we don’t get much time off but the atmosphere in the foyer is great and it’s worth it to see all the happy faces at the end of the show.

But it’s back to today’s business and another show.    Happy theatre-going!

Information on Touch Tours and how to book tickets for forthcoming productions go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com

Joan Collins – Sequins and feathers – a bit of Hollywood Glamour – oh yes there will be!

Press & PR Officer Mandy Rose went to London this week to meet Hugh Durrant, the man who will be bringing Hollywood glamour to Birmingham this Christmas.    She writes about her chat with Hugh.

On one of the coldest days of the year, and a clash with a tube strike, I took a very slow taxi across London to  meet the man who has the job of designing Joan Collins’ costumes for  her first ever role in a stage panto.

I entered through a big oak door and climbed up some very tiny stairs, at the top I was greeted by Hugh Durrant the Emmy Award winning designer who has worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

Joan Collins Queen Rat costume

He shook my hand and waved me into a room full of designs, files, scissors, braid and one amazing  purple sequinned dress with lots of feathers – Queen Rat’s  costume!   “Joan’s costume is not quite ready” he said  “I shall be seeing her next week for a final costume fitting but as you can see it’s coming on really well and will look amazing on her.   She’s great to work with really professional.”

Hugh has designed costumes for many of the Hippodrome panto’s;  he recently designed the costumes for John Barrowman in Aladdin.    But where does he get his ideas from?   “You have to fit the design with the actor and the character and what they like to wear.    For instance, when I designed Cher’s costumes for her Farewell Tour I added lots of beads which I knew she liked, I  was delighted when she she said she loved the design and asked for more to be added!”

Joan Collins will have three costume changes in Dick Whittington, including a glamorous black and green dress which matches the colour of King Rat, played by Nigel Havers.    Hugh told me that he hadn’t met Nigel yet but from measurements the designs are ready and waiting for costume fittings.

Hugh used to be Head of Design at Birmingham Rep.  He originally trained as an actor alongside Harry Potter star Alan Rickman.  “When I used to audition,  Alan always used to get the part.   I knew I was doing something wrong but  I wanted to stay in theatre and I was really good at drawing so I went into design.”

Hugh Durrant pictured with original pantomime costume designs

Hugh is an amazing artist.  The original drawings of Joan’s costumes are beautiful and he tells me that he has boxes full of designs from all sorts of productions and for many well known stars.   He has worked with stars such as Hugh Grant and Hollywood great Vivien Leigh  for instance. 

Apparently London was full of shops where he would buy his fabric but only  few such places remain and most of the material is now bought online.   “Costumes are very expensive and you have to make them last but with wear and tear, actors sweating, packing for tours …  they  can wear very quickly so you have to look after them, steam and press where we can, replace buttons etc.”   The most expensive show Hugh worked on was the London production of Babes in the Wood in 1985 starring Cannon and Ball, Barbara Windsor and a host of big star names.   He tells me that it was very hard work with lots of costume maintenance but well worth it.

Is there a favourite costume?   “No not really but I do like costumes that introduce fantasy and magic to the audience and there’s a great reaction when an actor makes an entrance.”

Hugh kindly lets me see Joan’s finale costume.   A stunning white gown with white feathers.    Whilst still work in progress, he lets me feel the fabric and shows me where the red sash will go but one thing he refuses to divulge is Joan’s measurements!  “I can’t give you that” he laughs.  Glancing back at the purple dress I have to say, Hugh will definitely be bringing a bit of Hollywood glamour to Birmingham over the Christmas season, Joan will look breathtaking and will certainly get a reaction from Hippodrome audiences!

Hugh Durrant's Emmy Award

It’s been a busy year for Hugh, as well as theatre he’s designed 8 shows for Cundard’s luxury liner The Queen Elizabeth.   Next week he’ll be arriving at Birmingham Hippodrome with the hat and wig maker to meet the cast for fittings and stay for technical and dress rehearsals.   So what will he be doing at Christmas?  “Putting my feet up and having a really good rest!”

(By the way during my chat with Hugh I actually held the Emmy Award he won in 2002 for Cher’s Farewell Tour!).

Dick Whittington stars Joan Collins with Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Keith Harris, Orville, Cuddles and Jeffrey Holland.   It opens on 18 December and runs until end of January. www.birminghamhippodrome.com

More images on picture gallery via Flickr go to Birmingham Hippodrome

Video footage of the visit can be found by going to the Express & Star online

Follow Mandy Rose on twitter:   @mandyrose1

Shetland ponies escorted by Police, Created in Birmingham, and new exhibition – a day in the life of Hippodrome staff!

Martin Pickard is a Senior Technician at Birmingham Hippodrome.    Martin works backstage where the magic happens.   In his spare time he is a keen photographer who has his first exhibition.

Martin Pickard pictured working backstage at Birmingham Hippodrome

I’ve been working in Birmingham since the mid 90’s, firstly at the Birmingham Rep, via the Sydney Opera House, and for the last 11 years at Birmingham Hippodrome.   I started here just before we had the major refurbishment which greatly improved the theatre’s backstage facilities.  Since then, with the installation of a 44 tonne lorry lift, we can now lower a whole lorry (full of sets, lighting costumes etc) from Street Level (via Inge St) to nearly 5 meters down to stage level in around one minute.   Before the refurbishment all the trailers were un-loaded on the street, and everything had to be brought in via a tiny lift.

Over the years l’ve been lucky enough to work on some of the biggest West End shows including Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, and I was fortunate enough to be here when we hosted The Royal Variety Performance in 1999 attended by HRH The Queen and Prince Philip.   But it’s when I meet stars that I watched on TV as a child that provide me with the most memorable moments, like Johnny Ball (Zoe Ball’s dad) from Think of a Number turning up driving his own transit van of props for a children’s show.

One of the biggest productions I have worked on in recent years is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.   I was always interested in finding out how Chitty actually flew but, even when I did, it still didn’t take away from the excitement of seeing the car fly high up in the middle of the stage.     

During the run of Chitty I was involved in the theatre’s backstage tours.  It was great to see the excited faces of the children who managed to get the chance to sit in the car – and then the faces of the nervous parents when I told them it cost one million pounds to build!

There’s never really a dull moment working backstage and there’s always a funny story to tell.   I remember one year we were doing the panto Cinderella.    We had 6 Shetland ponies to pull the carriage.    We got a message that the horsebox had broken down around the corner.  We had just ten minutes to go before curtain up when they arrived.  They were  led by their usual handlers and 2 policemen who had walked them down Bristol Road to the Hippodrome whilst being heckled by members of the public!

I’ll have to see what this year’s Dick Whittington brings with Joan Collins leading one of the biggest line-up of stars I’ve seen in a panto – it’s usually during the panto season that cast and crew enjoy themselves as much as the audience.

In the next few weeks I’ll know what it’s like to have my own opening night because as well as working full-time at the Hippodrome, I have a great interest in photography and am looking forward to my first joint photography exhibition at the Moseley Exchange  with Birmingham photographer Louise Holgate. 

Martin pictured with some of his photographs

I started posting my first images on Flickr in 2008.  Almost 2,000 photographs later I’m letting them out into the real world.   As we only recently had confirmation of space availability, the photographs were all printed and framed in less than 3 weeks  ready for the opening night on 2 November.    I must admit it’s one thing showing photos to family and friends but I’m more nervous of this than on an opening night of a big musical!  

Our next project will see us supplying photographic prints to the We are Birmingham shop, the next version of the Created in Birmingham shop that was near the Apple Store in the Bull Ring.   The shop, now in Dale End, is still just a shell at the moment but it is hoped that it will be open by mid-November just in time for Christmas.

And talking about Christmas, with the get-in for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s brand new production of Cinderella, followed by the arrival of the sets for our pantomime Dick Whittington, it really is going to be a very busy festive period for me.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s new production of Cinderella premieres at Birmingham Hippodrome on 24 November and runs until 12 December.    Joan Collins stars in Dick Whittington from 18 December 2010 – 30 January 2011.


Martin and Louise’ exhibition can be seen at The Moseley Exchange from 2 November 2010 – January 2011.  www.martinpickard.me/wordpress