Thinking Inside — and Outside — the Big Box (Offices)

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Geffen Playhouse box office exterior. Photo by Deborah Behrens.

Do you enjoy working alone? If so, working in the box office of one of LA’s larger theaters probably wouldn’t be your best career choice.

The box office is a tiny space crammed with smiling people anxious to help theatergoers and send them on their way. These employees are students and artists (including one chef!), lovers of theater and customer service wizards. They have spent hours trying to prepare for every possible ticketing snafu.

At the 2011 Ovation Awards ceremony, Geffen Playhouse artistic director Randall Arney remembered his longtime collaborator and friend, the late Gil Cates. In that speech Arney recounted several lessons he learned from working with Cates. One of these was “Bring a little candy to the box office.” After chuckles from the audience, he explained that they had regular lunch meetings in Westwood, after which Arney would be anxious to return to the office and get back to work. Cates always insisted on a detour to a nearby candy shop, where he would scoop up a bag of bulk candy to bring to the box office. Arney said that Cates advised, “Keep the box office happy — always bring a little candy for the box office” because they’re the ones who deal with the public.

Janet Huynh

Janet Huynh remembers Cates and his candy deliveries fondly. “It was a weekly occurrence — it didn’t happen just once,” she says. Cates would pop in, check the candy dish and exclaim that he must get more candy. His warmth and generosity were so appreciated by the staff that they never mentioned that they didn’t like candy corn, his most common selection. “We ate it anyway,” Huynh recalls. “We didn’t have the heart to tell him.”

And it wasn’t just the candy. Cates brought them candy dishes that he made at a paint-your-own-pottery studio while out with his grandkids. They still have one in the box office, and it stands empty in tribute.

Huynh has worked in the Geffen Playhouse box office for more than seven years. It was one of her very first jobs out of college, and she is now a part-time associate box office manager as well as a full-time staff accountant. Huynh had little accounting experience and is grateful that the Geffen gave her the chance to learn, as it has made her a better box office manager and gives her more opportunity to interact with the rest of the Geffen staff. She also teaches a cross-fit class at a local gym, and loves doing both because it gives her a “well-rounded life”¦ athlete and theater geek!”

Trading spaces

A Noise Within (ANW) moved into its new Pasadena home about a year ago, just three weeks before the first production. Company member, subscriber services manager, and “Box Office Goddess-I-mean-Manager” Deborah Strang was simultaneously in rehearsal for the first show, organizing subscriber season tickets, and setting up the box office. She keeps her roles as actor and box office manager as separate as she can, answering simple questions during rehearsals, but referring all ticket requests to the box office. “I just won’t remember!” she exclaims.

The box office team at A Noise Within: Deborah Strang, Erin Neel and Taylor Eichenwald

All subscribers had to be assigned to new seat locations in the new theater. Before performances started and with the help of an inquisitive subscriber, Strang discovered a discrepancy between the seating map online, the map on her computer and the actual seats in the house. It was an easy fix — the subscriber was happy to choose a different seat location. Thus, after carefully placing subscribers in seats that seemed most comparable to their locations in the old Glendale space, Strang had to go seat-by-seat through the theater to make sure everyone’s actual seats were where they were expected to be, before the tickets were mailed out. Luckily there was only the one erroneous seat.

But it didn’t end there. Subscribers found that they preferred different seats in the new theater than they had had in the old — the front row felt too close, or the aisle too far to the side, or something similar. After they came to their first production, they started to call, asking to be moved to different seats. Strang spent weeks playing musical chairs and was able to accommodate everyone.

As patrons of the new A Noise Within discovered, the approach to the theater is a bit confusing, at first. There are three streets in the immediate vicinity with the word “Madre” in them, and the front looks more like an apartment complex than an arts venue. Strang and producing artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott greeted patrons as they arrived for the second production (Strang and Elliott performed in and Rodriguez-Elliott directed the first, so all were unable to be out front) to find out what they thought and what ANW needed to do differently. As a result, they re-did all the patron communications, adding and changing information based on what the patrons said. They even opened the back door to the building to make it easier for Metro riders and those who park in the Metro garage to get inside””not ideal for them, but much easier for patrons.

Deborah Strang. Photo courtesy of Deborah Strang.

“They pretty much told us what we needed to do, and we pretty much did it,” says Strang.

Patrons first

In fact, the transition to the new space involved a huge customer service push. Every person who called with a concern got a call back from Strang or one of her associates. She feels making a personal connection is important. Sixteen years ago when she started running the box office, all sales originated with a person, either on the phone or standing at the window. Today most sales come over the internet, and, with print-at-home tickets, the patron may not interact with a person at all. Strang finds that this puts an uncomfortable distance between patron and box office. To close that gap, she reviews each online order and sometimes calls a patron back to make sure it’s what they intended.

Recently, someone purchased eight tickets for the same performance on four separate internet orders. The seats were not together, so Strang called the patron to make sure the scattering of seats was what he wanted. While he did not want the seats all together, the arrangement he had selected was also not right. Strang helped him to determine the correct seats and sent him the new tickets. She hopes patrons feel that “there is a person here who’s looking out for them.”

At the Pasadena Playhouse, there really is one person looking out for all patron needs. Patron services manager Lemuel H. Thornton III is in charge of the walk-up box office, telephone sales and customer service, subscriptions, concessions and front-of-house staff. He considers himself the Playhouse “hospitality manager.” His box office staffers also answer phones and sell snacks during performances; there’s a separate staff for house managing and the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse volunteer as ushers.

Lemuel H. Thornton III of the Pasadena Playhouse

The Pasadena Playhouse filed for bankruptcy in May of 2010, reorganized and emerged in July of the same year. Thornton worked in the box office both before and after the “brief intermission,” working his way up to his current position. He remembers what it was like following the reorganization: “The whole playhouse was on this skeleton crew, and I recall sitting at our first staff meeting and realizing we were a staff of like 12 or 13 — way different from where we are now.”

They no longer had access to the old patron database. They did have a massive, printed spreadsheet they nicknamed the “Master Subscriber List… of DOOM!!!” Thornton and a few others had to enter every subscriber back into the computer individually, by hand, and then reserve and mail their tickets for the first two productions. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe it. They typed for over a month, while juggling phone calls and returning voicemails from patrons who wanted to buy tickets or change their performance date or were wondering when their tickets would arrive or just wanted to vent about the theater being closed for a while. They discovered their voicemail box only holds 99 messages and regularly reached its limit. It was a battle to keep up.

It’s the staff that makes the service

What all the box office managers stress above all else is customer service. They expect their people to be able to talk about the shows, and they give them ample opportunity to learn. Thornton actually pays his staff to watch each play during previews. The Center Theatre Group (CTG) box office associates get a run-down on each season from the literary department — sometimes on DVD — plus there’s a company intranet site chock full of useful information. They are also encouraged to read the scripts and pop into the theater during their regular shift, if it’s quiet. Sarah Gonta, CTG’s box office treasurer (the union’s term for manager), admits, however, that “patrons are savvy, they educate themselves before they get to us.”

Sarah Gonta of Center Theatre Group

But the most important thing when you walk up to that box office is will they have my tickets. And the resounding answer from all is “yes”. There are problems, of course, that are most often caused by people showing up on the wrong date or giving the wrong reservation name. At the Pasadena Playhouse, Thornton and his staff meet regularly to discuss techniques for solving patron issues. Listening and taking notes are at the top of the list. They also discovered they could sometimes locate misplaced patron data by searching for email addresses or even seat numbers. One grateful patron dropped off several jars of homemade jam to say thank you for taking care of her. “We’ll get them in,” says a determined Thornton. “We want to share what’s on the stage with as many people as possible.”

CTG’s Gonta agrees. She appreciates that people have needs and part of good customer service is recognizing those needs and meeting them. “The rules are black and white, but we are very gray,” she laughs. To ensure that each patron has a positive experience, employees are all allowed to make “gray” decisions. “It takes special people to step up and take that power,” Gonta says.

Gonta’s follows the FISH! Philosophy with her staff: Be There; Play; Make Their Day; Choose Your Attitude. She encourages them to have full lives outside of work, believing that a fuller life leads to a happier person and a happy person provides better customer service. And it seems to be working. Of her full-time staff of nine, the newest employee has been there six years (the longest tenure is 22 years) and the patrons are happy, too. The box offices at the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theatres are fairly roomy — palatial completed to some — but the Mark Taper Forum box office cannot really be called an office. It’s more of a closet, with two ticket windows. And when Gonta is scheduling the staff there, size does matter. Not everyone can fit.

A Noise Within's theater interior. Photo by Michael Gutstadt.

A Noise Within’s new Pasadena theater has nearly twice the seats of the Glendale space. Since moving, ANW has doubled its subscriber base and as a result, Strang will be doubling her part-time staff from two to four. The Geffen and Playhouse each has nine box office staffers, mostly part-timers, but only a few can work at a time. Working so closely together, all the managers agree it’s important that everyone get along. Thornton explains that part of the hiring decision is how well someone will “fit” with the rest of group.

Much more than just a window

The work of the box office employes starts long before you walk up to that window. At the Geffen, Pasadena Playhouse, and ANW, they start selling subscriptions almost the moment the season is announced. The Geffen ticketing manager, for example, “builds” the shows — inputs all the correct information about performance dates and times and seat availability into the computer system — well in advance, so the Huynh and her box office staff can start selling subscriptions in April for the fall season.

At CTG, it’s a little different. With three theaters — more than 3000 seats among them — and 55,000 subscribers, it has a separate staff to handle incoming calls from subscribers and single-ticket buyers, headed up by Sandy Czubiak, audience and subscriber services manager. The box office workers will process ticket requests taken by the phone room, but they deal with patrons only in person. So while Gonta is not involved in subscription sales, there is plenty of other work to do. For example, because Gonta controls the ticket inventory, she must set aside house seats for the development, executive, and press departments — think donors, press, and special events — as well as for touring companies, who always get a bunch of tickets of their own.

A Noise Within Center Theatre Group Geffen Playhouse Pasadena Playhouse
Theaters 1 3 2 1
Seats 283 3,119 631 658
Subscribers 2,100 55,000 11,000 5,000
Box office staff 4 PT 9 FT + 3PT 9 PT 9 PT
Subscriber services/phones Done by box office staff 13 FT + 9 PT Done by box office staff Done by box office staff

Ahmanson Theater box office exterior. Photo by Alex Pitt.

Often a set will obstruct, cover or otherwise render undesirable some seats in the theater — called seat kills. Box office managers have to figure out what to do with the subscribers who usually sit in those seats — a smaller version of what Strang had to do with all of her subscribers when ANW moved. For example, War Horse started its national tour at the Ahmanson. The horse puppet, Joey, walked down a ramp from the stage and exited through the house. To accommodate the ramp, CTG had to take out 14 prime pairs of tickets. Czubiak, Gonta’s counterpart in audience services, was responsible for re-seating 14 long-time subscribers, very attached to their seat locations, for every performance.

To accomplish this, Gonta explains that over several weeks she stockpiled returned house seats and inventory from subscriber ticket exchanges. They used these tickets to re-seat subscribers as close to their original locations as possible. “Some subscriber seating was compromised by a row or two, while some seating was “˜improved’ by moving closer to the stage or more center in the section,” Gonta notes. “Most were re-seated within their current rows.”Â Patrons were notified by mail, but some were contacted by phone to discuss their seating options. Seating or schedule changes are a delicate business, but Gonta says she and Czubiak and their staff “strive to do so with as much grace as possible”¦ and with much appreciation to our loyal patrons” — an appreciation shared by all the box office managers.

Rachel Fain

Rachel Fain