I feel I should preface this article with a bit of a disclaimer: yes, my job title is Duty Manager, and yes the Ivy Arts Centre at the University of Surrey is a theatre venue for students and public alike. However, I am well aware it’s probably not quite the same as public venues purely dedicated to theatre productions.
Being a Duty Manager is both incredibly easy and incredibly stressful – standing back and watching my team of ushers and Box Office assistants work like elves during a sold-out show is satisfying; dealing with disgruntled late-comers, orchestrating the wheelchair spaces, and being on your toes in case of an emergency (touch wood – not happened yet!) can play on your mind without you even realising.
I started as an usher in my first year of university – as Theatre students, we were all required to cover at least one show in your first semester, to get an insight into the way professional venues work from the inside. However, I enjoyed it (and the free show!!) so carried on, progressing and training to volunteer Box Office assistant. In total I logged over 100 hours of voluntary work within the theatre, and learned so much, as well as seeing many incredible shows. My intention was to continue my way up and become fully trained to run the front of house, and thus be paid. But staff changes and circumstances meant I went a full year without stepping foot inside the theatre again. It wasn’t until last summer that I was able to pick up my training again and remind myself of what it’s like to run a theatre.
I suppose having experience in retail, a public-facing role wasn’t too difficult to comprehend, and theatre is a world I know. Dealing with agents and VIPs is exciting as well as laborious (remembering to take out that second bottle of Sauvignon Blanc before the interval has left me running down the corridors more than once!), and the end of day cash handling is what it is – figures and double checking. But the responsibility for a team of 6 fresh-faced ushers is brilliant, knowing you’re in control and you’re the one to call in a crisis. For half-an-hour before curtain-up, and 15-minutes at interval, Front of House is my domain, and I watch over it with an attentive but satisfied eye.
It’s made me appreciate just how busy it can be behind that desk too – I’m ashamed to say that I have, on occasion, got frustrated with box office staff at theatres who are taking just that little bit too long to print my ticket. But believe me, it’s the days when the house is full, the agents are stony-faced, and you’ve got no box office staff that the computer will crash, a booking will get lost, and the ticket-machine will run out of paper. But once the house lights go down, you get a brief respite from the enthusiastic patrons, and can go through the mundanity of event reports which, whilst being necessary, also encourage you that yes, your attendance tonight is 100%.
Day time duty management is a little different, answering sporadic phone calls and redirecting lost members of the public to other parts of campus. But it’s valuable and rare time (as I am proving now) to reflect and have some head-space.
As I mentioned, mine is a slightly unique territory – being on a university campus means not much happens during the day except a visit from a few members of staff. And theatres in London especially will find themselves on-duty in a far more obvious sense. But it’s something I enjoy, can see the benefits both personally and professionally, and feel I do well.