BUSY ON EVERY FRONT

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

Charity Fundraising to West End Stardom – Birmingham Hippodrome staff do it all!

Front of House Customer Services Assistant,  Natasha Parker reveals that there’s a lot more to the theatre’s Customer Services team than meets the eye.

As far as most patrons are concerned, the people that greet them when they arrive at the theatre are simply starry-eyed. Some may even be thespians-in-the-making, people who sell a few programmes to make ends meet until fame whisks them off to the West End. For some this may be true, take Amy Booth-Steel for example. Once a Front of House steward for Birmingham Hippodrome, she found her break on BBC’s I’d Do Anything; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Nancy in Oliver. Despite not winning the show, she’s gone on to perform in The Sound of Music and Sister Act in London. Not bad for a girl that sold ice-creams.

For many however, life may not reach such dizzy heights, but we certainly have something to shout about. Sally Staff, Trainee Supervisor for the

Sally Staff and Becky Marsden walking to London.

Front of House team walked (yes walked!) from the Hippodrome to London’s Dominion Theatre last week in aid of the Mercury Phoenix Trust, the charity set up in memory of Queen’s Freddie Mercury, which was brought to our attention during the production of We Will Rock You last summer. Will she be inspired to do it again in honour of the musical returning next year? We’ll have to wait and see.

The charity work doesn’t end there. Our Head of Customer Services, Jonathan Thompson, ran The Great North Run in 1 hour and 49 minutes last week in aid of The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, and if that wasn’t enough, he’s participating in the Birmingham Half Marathon on October 24th. So, if you’re coming to see a show in the next few weeks, feel free to congratulate them – they’ll like the attention!

While some staff may be out saving the world or performing onstage, the rest of us have to get on with some work. When we’re not serving you in kiosks or nagging you for tickets at the doors, we’re working in other areas of the theatre. Whether it’s at corporate conferences or outdoor events such as Artsfest or Six Summer Saturdays, we’re keeping ourselves busy. Two weeks ago I worked at the Press Launch for this year’s pantomime, Dick Whittington. Complete with bright and shiny costumes, complimentary cupcakes and Orville harassing unsuspecting journalists, panto had well and truly arrived, much to the media and the staff’s excitement.

That same week, cast members from Blaze came in to lead a street dance workshop with sixth-form dance students from local schools ahead of their shows next week. The results of the workshop can be seen in pre-show performances in the foyers from Thursday 7 October along with other local talent. If the workshop is anything to go by, the show promises to be thrilling. I too was offered the chance to join in, but after considering my dancing skills I thought better of it, so you can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Jonathan Thompson and Yozi at the starting line

So next time you venture into the foyers before a show, you may find yourself wondering just what we’ve been up to while you were away. Whether it’s working with puppets or raising money, you can be sure that there’s never a dull moment.

We Will Rock You returns  to Birmingham Hippodrome in 2011.   Blaze opens on 7-9 October.  Performances in foyer pre-show on 7 October from 7pm.