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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Front of House: Behind the Scenes

By Ke Weiliang

(1700 words, 15-minute read)

One of my earliest front of house (FOH) memories was at a rock concert held at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre. On any other day, the combination of ‘outdoor’ and ‘rock band’ could easily have been an anagram for ‘Murphy’s Law’. Thankfully, most of the patrons were well-behaved. But there was an encounter that still amuses me to this day:

“Excuse me!”

“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?”

“Why you all geh kiang[1], must stage the concert outside? The weather very hot, you know? Can you do something about it?”

A moment of stunned silence.

“…Okay ma’am, let me see what I can do about it.”

As I walked away to give the impression that I was about to give the inconsiderate Sun a talking to, a barrage of swear words formed in my mind. While the FOH training that I underwent did prepare me to handle a variety of situations involving irate patrons, it never once occurred to me that I would be expected to be able to effect climate change at will, and for just $8 an hour! Although nothing could be done, I returned shortly with a righteous response:

“Ma’am, I have informed the people in charge. They are doing something about it.”

A moment of hesitant silence. Oh no! Was she going to cry foul about my undocumented ties with extra-terrestrial beings from the Sun?

“Oh, thank you so much! I feel cooler now.”

This incident was an important precursor to my (admittedly still short) experience at FOH. When there is a patron in distress, the FOH staff is automatically the go-to person. Yet, whenever I tell people that I am on FOH duty, a common response that I get is:

“Orh, so all you have to do is to tear ticket stubs and usher people to their seats? Very easy one lah.”

I get easily annoyed by statements like this. In the same way that customers tend to overlook the contribution of wait staff to the dining experience at a restaurant, FOH coordination also tends to be one of the most overlooked aspects of the theatre or concert going experience. Marketing efforts aside, the time that a patron spends at FOH creates their first point of contact with the production that they are about to watch. In that sense, the audience’s experience is shaped even before they enter the performance space.

In an average FOH set-up, there is one Almighty FOH manager and a couple of Not-So-Mighty minions under their charge. The Almighty is usually a full-time employee of the presenting organisation. Typically, he or she would much rather spend the evening anywhere but in charge of FOH. Unfortunately, their even Almightier artistic director is likely to share the same sentiments, and hierarchy wins. The Not-So-Mighties tend to be unsuspecting xiao di dis and xiao mei meis[2], perhaps awaiting matriculation into university. Lured by the reward of a pair of complimentary tickets (or on incredibly rare occasions, an hourly stipend), these gung-ho youths unknowingly put themselves at risk of martyrdom during the production run.

Here, I would like to highlight four (of an inexhaustible list of many) dreaded situations that FOH staff often find themselves embroiled in:

 

1. ‘TOUTING’ IN THE THEATRE

The distribution of programme booklets is a task that seems deceptively innocuous at first sight. Truth be told, the difficulty really depends on how hard up the Almighty (or the Almighty’s Almighty) is for cash. In a cashless situation, the task is an abridged version of handing out copies of the TODAY newspaper at the train station. If the crowd happens to be a largely arts-loving one, the programme booklets fly like hotcakes. If the crowd consists of secretly disgruntled individuals whose presence at the theatre has less to do with passion for the arts and more to do with blood relations or fear of loss of friendship, it becomes slightly harder, but not entirely insurmountable. As long as the Not-So-Mighty is willing to do a basic Puss in Boots impersonation, chances are that most will give in to their uniquely Singaporean fear of missing out on freebies. Why not, right?

The ball game is entirely different if programme booklets are exchanged for cash, regardless if it is by arbitrary donation or at a fixed price. The task becomes an exponentially more difficult version of the ‘Flag Day’ routine that most Singaporean school kids are forced to go through at some point. Instantly, the qualities of Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak are magically bestowed upon those carrying piles of these ‘overpriced’ programme booklets. In extreme situations where a safe return to the Almighty’s side is guaranteed only via fulfilling a sales ‘quota’, the helpless Not-So-Mighty may feel pressured to launder a few dollars out of their own pockets.

 

2. APPEASING THE ERRANT

Refusing the patron immediate entry into the theatre – a practice intended at minimising disturbance to the performers onstage and audience members who are already seated in the house – is a common Catch-22 situation because of the oft-quoted “The customer is always right” slogan.

The amount of leeway in admitting latecomers depends on the genre of the performance. At a rock concert, no one bats an eyelid at the arbitrary admission and readmission of patrons, given the inherent loudness of the music that is already being played. Applying the same protocol to a piano recital, however, may bear catastrophic consequences. The shuffling of footsteps is likely to provoke the ire of those with a keen ear for music, especially when soft passages are being performed onstage.

It is only on hindsight that Not-So-Mighties like me can laugh at the times when we have been verbally abused by patrons for not preventing the rush hour traffic jam along the Pan Island Expressway, or for not being empathetic of their bold decision to drink Milo after consuming laksa. On the ground, however, it is a depressing situation that necessitates an expensive visit to the pub after the said abuse.

 

3. ANTI-CAMERA OPERATIONS

While there are exceptions, photography and video recording of performances are generally prohibited in Singapore theatres. For one, there is the issue of copyright infringement. For another, the light emitted from the camera is often distracting for both the audience and the performers onstage. Nevertheless, once in a not-so-blue moon, a streak of light will mysteriously appear in the darkened theatre. Such recalcitrant behaviour is bound to attract the attention of a shadowy, Gestapo-like figure – your FOH guardian.

If the perpetrator is seated along the aisles, a simple tap on the shoulder usually suffices. If he or she is seated right smack in the middle of the row, things can get ugly. At the very least, the hissing of a string of incoherent sibilant sounding warnings across the row is to be expected. If the shadowy, Gestapo-like figure has been given a potentially career-ending ultimatum by their Schutzstaffel equivalent, do not be surprised to witness a spectacle of acrobatic seat-climbing as we valiantly try to reach the philistine with the camera.

I can perhaps extend some sympathy to parents eager to capture their child performing onstage for posterity. I cannot, however, understand why others would spend $200 on a ticket just to make mediocre quality video recordings of Les Miserables with their smartphones. Why not just sit back and enjoy the nuances that come only with watching a ‘live’ performance?

 

4. WHEN THOSE WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER, MISBEHAVE

I grit my teeth in silence when the average theatre or concert goer misbehaves. My blood boils, however, when a fellow practitioner is guilty of the same misdemeanours. I always expect better from anyone who is well acquainted with the intricacies of performance making.

A few weeks ago, I was on FOH duty at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards. At the end of the curtain call, I was tasked by my venue officer to stand guard in front of a restricted access door. Hovering ominously above my head was a bright green “Exit” sign. I might as well have had a crosshair stamped across my forehead.

Enter a balding man – whom I believe is in his mid-forties – dressed impeccably in a white dress shirt, black suit and pants. The apparition of Stamford Raffles inexplicably surfaced as he strutted towards my door.

Hello sir, I am afraid that this exit is out of bounds. Would you like to exit via the other door? In any case, it is faster for you to get to the post-ceremony reception via that way.

A pause. A smirk on the man’s face.

…No, I am exiting via this door.

And before I knew it, he shoved his way past all six inches of my peasant-like presence. The entourage of people behind him hastily followed suit, like lemmings with “sorry, not sorry” written all over their faces in invisible ink as they made their way out.

I continued to smile as I advised the remaining patrons at my door to take the other exit but deep down, I was livid. If it is considered psychologically healthy to vent negative feelings as soon as they are invoked, then I should, following acceptable customer service standards, already be irrevocably insane as I write this article.

Come to think of it, some of the best acting I’ve seen has been by FOH staff. Would anyone care to nominate me for the Best Actor award for next year’s M1-Straits Times Life Theatre Awards?

Yes, I applied for the FOH job primarily because I want to earn that hourly wage (or that pair of complimentary tickets), and not because I seek for some therapeutic or altruistic meaning in providing quality customer service. Nevertheless, it does not make me any less motivated to ensure that my patrons have a pleasant (if not extra-enjoyable) night out at the theatre. While I not-so-secretly hope to be able to peacefully go through the motions, I realise that there will be times when I have to go beyond the call of duty and channel my inner Goddess of Mercy.

So, the next time you’re at the theatre, treat the FOH the way you want to be treated. Maybe, just maybe, you might attain enlightenment without having to sit under a Bodhi tree.

 


[1] smart-aleck (Mandarin)
[2] little brothers and little sisters (Mandarin)

Guest Contributor Ke Weiliang is a saikang warrior in the Singapore arts scene. Primarily a theatre-maker at heart and an aspiring producer, Weiliang’s lifelong mission is to open the minds of people by helping others tell their stories on stage. Still deciding whether to continue his formal education, Weiliang currently devotes most of his time to the upcoming M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival as Festival Programme Assistant, whilst juggling other freelance projects on the side.

Weiliang believes that sharing is caring. He runs a theatre calendar which is publicly accessible at http://bit.ly/sgtheatrecalendar

Comments: 1

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  1. This text should be read by all young people aspiring to be involved in the arts in Singapore. Thank you, Weiliang