BWW Interview: 'A Vital Role in the Theatre Community' - Why Stage Door Keepers are a Keeper
Our Special Effects series normally explores the work backstage; this time we're going even further back, so far you're almost out the building! We're celebrating a certain role, one not so much about special effects but rather special affections: Stage Door Keeper.
Chatting to the teams at the Prince Edward Theatre (Aladdin) and the Theatre Royal Haymarket (Heathers the Musical), both explained how being "a people person" is so key to the role. In addition to being the eyes and ears of the theatre, in a way they're the heart of it too, a sentiment echoed by others in the buildings...
"The Stage Door Keeper is usually the first person to welcome you into the building - they look after your key, your mail, your security, and your wellbeing. They greet your guests and show discretion with unknown visitors.
"It's such a vital role in the theatre community - the best Stage Door men and women are the cheery ones who go the extra mile to get to know you, and thankfully that's most of them!"
Jon Boydon, Heathers
"It's so important to feel safe every day that you get to work and also it's a bonus if they make you smile. Stage door Keeper at any theatre is the beginning to every day of work for most people in the building!"
Jodie Steele, Heathers
One of the team to welcome the Heathers cast in every morning is Ralph
Having joined the Theatre Royal Haymarket earlier this year, he returns to the role of Stage Door Keeper after a number of years away.
As Heathers closes today, he reveals how when one Stage Door closes, another opens, with the next productions already arriving.
How did you get started in this field?
I've actually had a bit of a break from Stage Door. So in March this year, I started at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. I previously worked in the 90s at Les Misérables for three years at the Palace Theatre, and I did Cats before that.
Then I took a security role within the Civil Service at the National Archives, and was there from 1996 to 2018 when I took semi-retirement. I saw this job going in The Stage, applied and I got it!
What drew you to the role?
You're like the eyes and ears of the theatre. It's the hub, the Stage Door. You meet some interesting people, from the cleaners to the celebs; everybody 95% of the time is lovely.
You start making friends with people. So with Heathers on at the moment we have a young cast, vibrant. It's lovely to follow their career paths, what they've done before and what they'll go onto after.
What is the role?
So there's three of us who share the role and it's a great team: myself, Anthony and Alex.
In our role at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, we are the entrance for the staff and the crew. We open up the Stage Door at 9am in the morning and we lock it up about 11pm at night.
During that time, anybody can come in: from theatrical companies to deliveries - anybody and everybody. We are responsible for welcoming them and being the hub of information.
We share information; people are feeding me info from other departments, what's going on and who's coming in. And you get to know everyone so quickly. It doesn't take too long to fit into a friendly theatre like the Theatre Royal Haymarket and feel part of a team.
It sounds like no day is ever the same?
Yes. You never know who's coming through the door, although you do have a rough idea because Stage Management give us their schedule for the week.
We're quite busy at the moment - we've got a show called The Band coming in December, and we've got Peppa Pig at the end of that month, and then Only Fools and Horses are coming in early next year too!
So you've got two impending productions coming on, plus you've a bigger one for next year as well.
What's changed in the time you've been away?
Some things have definitely changed: emails, cameras, radios, everything to support the team.
We have a great camera system - we can see a good overall picture of behind and in front of the theatre. We're just off Haymarket, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square, so that's a big footfall and traffic. And it's amazing what you do see on the cameras!
Also, we have a system in the West End called the Lear Radio System, which all the theatres are a part of. So if something happens at the Wyndham's Theatre or the Palladium or somewhere, we talk to one another on our radio and let each other know what's going on in the West End.
It's like a network of shared information. That's interesting for me, particularly with my security background as well, letting people know what's going on.
You must have quite a few stories from your time at Stage Doors. Any you can share?
When I was on Les Misérables in the 90s, there was a guy called Larry Adler and he was the world's most famous harmonica player. My father played harmonica - and he would've love to know that I'd met his idol!
Those lovely, heartfelt moments and the people you meet, they make the role. The other day here, we had a mother and a daughter who was in a wheelchair, and she wanted to give something to the Heathers, just give them a little bit of cake and chat.
Speaking to someone like that, that meant so much to me. It was really nice, what the theatre meant to that lady, and it meant a lot to the mum to bring her daughter up, who couldn't communicate properly (she really was severely disabled). But to see the joy they brought. That kind of thing is what it's all about: being nice.
That seems a crucial skill for this role: personability
Exactly. I just like being me - a people person, that's me! You just don't know who's going to walk through your door and you just receive them as best you can.
And the longer you work, the more people you meet. I'm getting back into kind of where I was 20-odd years ago and it doesn't feel like I left. A lot has changed since then, like the tech. But one thing hasn't: the personability of the role is the key.
Another skill which proves useful is multitasking, as the Stage Door team at the Prince Edward Theatre revealed to us.
The theatre was recently presented with Best Stage Door, at the WhatsOffStage awards.
Stage Door Keepers Luke Renshaw and Sharon Williams shared their stories of who they've met at Stage Door (from celebs to future partners...).
How did you get into Stage Door Keeping?
Luke Renshaw: More by luck than anything else really: I was working in sales and needed a stop gap job before starting in another similar role. And that stop gap job has lasted about 15 years!
Sharon Williams: I started off as a member of the Front of House team who was entrusted to cover the Stage Door when the Keepers were off. So I've been working in this current position for three years, but have been with the theatre for nine years.
What does the Stage Door Keeper role involve for you, at the Prince Edward Theatre?
Luke Renshaw: It requires us to be an amalgam of receptionist, security guard and administrator. We are the point of contact between FoH and RoH, the public and all visitors and contractors. So it's a varied job that requires flexibility and perhaps a sense of humour!
Sharon Williams: There is never one day which is the same as the other. One day we can be assisting police with their enquiries, to chasing events' organisers for equipment not delivered, assisting with evacuation procedures (luckily this is very rare), to some days being uneventful.
Luke Renshaw: And we are the two full-time staff doing that, plus several Front of House staff who cover our holidays. There are two shifts: the morning starts at 7.30am to 3.45pm, and the evening shift runs 3.30-11pm.
What's your favourite thing about being a Stage Door Keeper?
Luke Renshaw: I enjoy the difference between those two shifts.
The morning usually means dealing with contractors and requests for information and requires a more business-like role. The evening shift sees the show staff and cast arrive, and backstage begins to feel less like a business and more like a theatre.
Sharon Williams: Being a Stage Door Keeper means you get to meet so many different people from all sorts of life. From the producers to production team, cast, crew, management, down to the maintenance team and external contractors. All of whom have a vital part to play in the running of the theatre, so it's important to be a people's person.
Do you have any stories you can share from your time Stage Door Keeping across London?
Luke Renshaw: There was a time when Michael Jackson was due to come, and the word got out so we had hundreds of fans congregating outside. But then he changed his plans at the last minute.
We've also had Posh and Becks pass through and Billy Idol. I was more excited to be seeing Billy because I grew up listening to his music. He turned to me, gave that lip-curled grin and said, "How ya doin', man?".
I also met my wife here when she was working on stage electronic for Mamma Mia!. In fact, I remember before she even got the job, she used to phone up to talk to Gavin (the chief electrician) and I'd think, "She sounds nice".
After she got the job, she'd regularly rush in at the last minute, but she would always say "Thank you" when she passed me. Given the static nature of my job, it was a trick to get to know her in work time but (as they say) love will always find a way! We got married five years ago at an Elvis wedding in Vegas.
What's one thing people may not expect about the role?
Luke Renshaw: There's a pastoral element to the role, akin to that of a barman or barber perhaps. But I'm not sure that I always offer the best advice!
Sharon Williams: Yes, whilst it's not part of the official job description, because we have a good rapport with the cast and crew, very often we are seen as a substitute therapist and people like to offload their personal problems.
I see this as an essential part of the job, as it unburdens the individual and allows them to work or perform more productively.
Finally, for anyone wanting to get into this Stage Door Keeping, what's the one skill you would need?
Luke Renshaw: Being able to multitask...if that qualifies as one skill!
Sharon Williams: Exactly. The role requires a myriad of skills which are all equally as important as the other. But it's imperative to create a friendly, positive environment for people to come into, be able to think quickly on your feet, and above all have a good sense of humour.