Level 1 foyer during the Emerald City opening night. Photo: Heath Warwick

Southbank Theatre

The Foyer and Front of House

Mark Wheeler is Theatre Operations Director at Southbank Theatre. He introduces us to the front-of-house staff you see in the foyer, who keep the theatre running and who make the audience’s visit one to remember.

By Melanie Sheridan

When you visit the theatre, the staff you see and interact with are the front-of-house (FOH) staff – ticketing staff, house attendants, those behind the bar. But despite the name, there are just as many people in less visible FOH roles.

Who are the FOH staff?

There are many front-of-house roles, both seen and unseen. Audience members will be familiar with the house attendants, who welcome you and show you to your seats, and with the bar staff who serve drinks before the show and during interval (as well as post-show on opening nights). There is also a house supervisor each performance for the FOH area, and a separate bar supervisor for the bars; they manage those areas to ensure everything runs smoothly every performance. You may also see security staff on site to manage the safety of staff and patrons. 

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Photo: Benjamin Healley

FOH staff you may be less familiar with include the theatre operations director, whose responsibility is to run the whole theatre – overseeing the people as well as the physical building. This role is supported by the building manager, who looks after all the ‘smart’ technology – of which a building like Southbank Theatre has a lot. The full-time house services manager coordinates all FOH staff rosters, ensures the foyers are ready to welcome the audience and liaises with MTC and hirers about their needs. There is also a full-time bar manager, who will sometimes work the bar with their staff but more often than not they can be found doing the less glamorous but vital administrative work of ordering stock, banking, stocktaking, updating menus, organising feature cocktails and the like.

At any given performance in the Sumner, there will be 11 FOH staff on duty, plus an additional two if the Lawler is also being used.

When on duty …

There’s a lot of FOH work that takes place before the theatre doors open to the public, but once they do the FOH staff swing into even higher gear – checking tickets, selling drinks, answering enquiries and generally looking after the wellbeing of all audience members as they head towards the auditorium.

A couple of minutes before show time, the house supervisor makes the final announcements in the foyer to get the last audience in; changes the foyer screens to take a video feed from the stage for latecomers; talks to all staff on internal communication channels to make sure the audience is settling and people are in their seats; and runs any required last-minute checks with box office to see if all tickets have been collected, and if not, how many are left. This is important to know because if the show starts with too many audience still not arrived, then getting those latecomers to their seats can disturb the rest of the audience and the actors on stage.

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Photo: Benjamin Healley

Once the supervisor feels the house is about ready, they’ll go into the auditorium and visually check all is ok, before calling the stage manager to give clearance (aka ‘you can start the show now’). They’ll then radio their staff to let them know they can close the doors. As soon as the auditorium doors are shut, all staff count that as the start of the show, even if the actors haven’t appeared on stage yet.

Then it’s back out into the foyer to help manage latecomers – audience lockouts can happen for a variety of reasons related to storytelling or safety. Any number of unpredictable occurrences, such as the weather or big special events in the city, could cause ticket holders to run late, and when this happens the FOH staff need to manage the expectations of latecomers to get in as quickly as possible while also ensuring the performance is not unduly interrupted.

After their shift is over, FOH staff pack and clean, and do a debrief that includes providing any feedback on what they’ve heard audiences saying about the show. It’s anecdotal but over the course of a show’s run, you can start to see patterns in the audience's responses to each production.

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Photo: Tim Grey

Overseeing it all…

Overseeing all of this is Mark Wheeler. He’s been the theatre operations director at Southbank Theatre since 2012, and loves the practical aspect of managing the building, and all the people in it, as much as he enjoys experiencing the creativity involved in all the work MTC and our other hirers put on the stage. ‘I like running buildings,’ he says. ‘I like the nuts and bolts of making sure everything works and is in the right place. But we have an amazing resident company in MTC with a strong history and a big presence in the cultural life of Melbourne and Victoria. It can be really exciting to be working here and to see each new show evolve from drawing board to finished production. In a lot of theatres, you only become aware of the show for the first time when it turns up on the truck!’

Asked about his favourite productions at the theatre, he mentions Born Yesterday and Wild. He especially loved the design elements of the Born Yesterday sets – ‘when the lights came up on that set it was really breathtaking’ – and Wild was ‘a smart show, with a great script, that was then enhanced by all the really interesting tricks built into the set.’

In addition to the shows, some of his favourite memories from his time at Southbank Theatre have been when it’s been part of Open House Melbourne. ‘It brings new people into the building and the backstage tours allow everyone to see areas they don’t normally see, which might take away some of the mystery but it also reveals the complexity of what goes on behind the scenes.’

The one thing he wishes more people would do at the theatre, however, is the stop on the level 1 foyer and look out the window. ‘It’s such a beautiful outlook over the city,’ he says, but too many people may miss it in their rush. ‘If people can give themselves an extra five minutes when they arrive,’ Mark recommends heading upstairs to level 1 and stopping for a moment to enjoy this view. ‘Let the frantic pace of the outside world disappear before heading into the auditorium and being taken on a new journey through the great storytelling you’ll experience at Southbank Theatre.’

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Photo: Benjamin Healley

Published on 5 June 2020

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