I had the pleasure of seeing a preview performance of what I believe might become the best reviewed new musical in NYC in many years. It was smart, funny, catchy, and beautifully executed. But that is not the topic of this post. No. This post is about the experience of live professional theater. Specifically, what you should expect if a house is doing everything right.
You'd be surprised how often you receive less than great service at a Broadway theater. The ushers are gruff, treating you like an item to be stocked on a shelf. The bartenders are careless with their pours and the merchandise team will try to rush you into buying something you weren't even asking about. It's off-putting and reflects poorly on the show experience.
The first thing you should notice when entering a professional theater is some type of theater personnel--security, usher, house staff--greeting the crowd and explaining what to do. This usually includes opening your bag for a security check, having your ticket out, and instructions on which door to enter through. If the staff is slacking off, disinterested, or downright rude, you should make a note to report it to the house manager later. It is their job to ensure the best experience possible for the theater attendees, but it's almost impossible in a large commercial theater for them to ensure everything is running smoothly. Be polite and courteous in your comments. A bad front door person will most likely not ruin your evening.
What can start to send the night downhill is an ill-organized seating system. The ushers are there to get you to the right section of the theater, hand you a playbill, and make sure you follow house safety rules. Expect to show your ticket many times before you wind up in your seat. This is for your benefit. The last thing you want is to be shoved in the wrong seat because someone didn't follow protocol.
While the staff can make a good show better and a bad show bearable, they are not a flawless security system, if you will. If you have a problem for whatever reason--broken seat, rude neighbors, leaky ceiling, garbage all over the floor--the burden falls on you to let the house staff know. Flag down the usher and let them know what your problem is. If they can fix it themselves, they will. If not, they'll get their manager. You then explain--calmly, politely--what's going on and they will do their best to fix the situation for you. There's not much that can happen at a sold out show, but reasonable requests are rarely refused.
Take, for example, when my mother and I saw Mary Poppins. She hurt her knee a few days before and decided to tough it through in a tight row of seats. I saw she was in so much pain by the end of Act I, I flagged down an usher and asked for suggestions. We were given a booster seat for her which created more leg room; we would have been satisfied with just that. She had enough space to stretch out her leg and I was able to get a bag of ice from the bar to numb the pain. The usher who helped us then found the house manager and we were invited out into the lobby to discuss the situation. The house manager offered to move us to the rear orchestra, next to the sound board, where they have free-standing chairs and much more leg room. We accepted the offer. The seats weren't that much better than what we had in the mezzanine, but at least my mother wasn't in pain any longer.
Had I not brought up an issue to the usher, I would have gotten no assistance beyond a bag of ice for her knee. The house staff wants to help you. They are trained to help you. But if they don't know they're supposed to help you at a given time, they can't help you. Do not be afraid to speak up in a professional theater. You are paying enough money to guarantee you have a pleasant experience.
During intermission, things get chaotic. People rush to the restrooms, the bar, the souvenir stall, and the theater exit to stretch out and talk about the show. In a good theater, the house staff will be positioned all throughout the theater to answer questions and guide traffic. They will tell you where the restrooms are, where you can buy souvenirs, and how long the intermission is. You should not be afraid to ask the house staff a question during intermission.
The capper on a night of theater is an orderly exit from the theater. The house staff should again be present, giving clear and concise directions. You don't want to go out the fire exit that sets off an alarm if you don't have to. If the staff is not explaining where to go, ask someone so you don't go the wrong way. In most theaters, this isn't an issue, but the larger Broadway houses can drop you off on different streets and avenues than you entered from. It's confusing, but you'd be surprised how often the staff does not tell you how to get out.
If you pay the price for a professional theater performance, you deserve good customer service. If you have a problem with a staff member, let the house manager know. If you need help, let your usher now. Do not be afraid to ask a question, but do not be shocked if you are reprimanded for breaking clearly expressed rules. It's the give and take of theater.