|Christine Gruder and friends. Photo: Susannah Gruder|
After working at BAM for 25 years, Theater Manager Christine Gruder has seen it all. She and her staff, which includes 200 ushers and an Associate Manager, serve as the front line when patrons come to the theater, assisting them directly with any issues they may have, directing the flow of the audience in and out of the theater, and liaising with the various departments at BAM to ensure a successful performance. She has fielded countless complaints as well as compliments from theatergoers over the years, which she recognizes as being all part of the job. Though I know her as my mom, she’s taken care of BAM patrons for longer than I’ve been alive.
Q: Your job can be understood as the manager of the fourth wall—the audience and the house itself—an integral part of the theatrical experience. Do you see yourself in that sort of role?
A: I do in the sense that the frame of mind of the audience member affects their enjoyment of the piece. If they come in and they’re confused, or they’re irritated, or they’re angry, or they’re cold, or hot, or nervous… If they have negative feelings it’s going to affect their enjoyment. And conversely if they come in and they feel welcome, and they feel like they’re coming to a place where they’re going to be cared for and things go smoothly, it does as well. If we’re doing our job right they shouldn’t even have to think about what we’re doing. It should be seamless. And if they do experience something less than desirable, the way we handle it affects how they feel. One of the things I love about the way my department runs, is that I have such an amazing staff that I’m often told by people that an usher helped them, and that they love coming to BAM because the ushers are kind and recognize them and they’re helpful.
Q: How do you interact with the rest of the BAM staff to prepare for each engagement?
A: One of the main things that we have to do is to determine if there are any special circumstances for a particular show that that might affect the audience. We interact with virtually every department at BAM. We are working with Building Operations to make sure that the theater and the lobby and the sidewalk are clean and ready for the patrons. Everything from paper towels being stocked to fire escapes being shoveled. The Production Department are the main people at show time that we are communicating with about whether the house is ready to be open. They’ll ask us if we’re ready to start the show, if the house is in; they’ll tell us if the actors are ready to go back on stage after intermission. We will work with the company through the Production Supervisor to decide when to have late seating, which is a delicate issue. We try to determine the least disruptive point to bring latecomers in, and that has to be conveyed to the ushers who carry it out. And then we have a wonderful relationship with the Stage Crew. They fix anything that we need fixed, whether it’s a broken seat or a curtain that’s come loose. We work with the Marketing Department as far as program inserts, BAMbills, or whether a show is appropriate for children, and we work with Publicity if there are any photographers in the house, among other things. We also communicate with the Box Office to handle any last minute ticket requests that come up.
Q: You work very closely with people in your role as theater manager. If a patron has any sort of issue while they’re at BAM, they come to you. What are the benefits—and challenges—of this aspect of your job?
A: I love it when someone takes the time to let me know how something that I did or something that one of my ushers did really allowed them to have a fantastic experience. Whether it’s that they had a special need and they contacted us in advance for us to help them, and then afterwards someone might say—my child or my friend—it’s not easy for them to come to the theater and your staff was very accommodating and we had a wonderful time. That sort of thing is very gratifying. I really believe that most people are genuinely good people and if I didn’t believe that I would not be able to do this job. I have dealt with people at their best, as well as people who are having a really bad moment or day. We have had audience members coming to blows with each other. I have been sworn at, spit at, insulted. And I try not to take it personally, I try to help them to have a better time and to be a good example to my staff. I want my staff to treat people that way and to give them the benefit of the doubt and to always try to turn a bad situation around. And if I’m not willing to do that, I certainly can’t expect my staff to do that.
Q: Have you dealt with any especially unique productions that have required some theater management improvisation?
A: When we did Les Atrides at the Park Slope Armory in 1992, the Armory was used because the show was too big to fit into any of our theaters. It was four Greek tragedies over 10 hours directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, who’s a theater genius. But the night that we opened, the seats were still being nailed into the bleachers and it really wasn’t ready to go. And yet we had a show that had to go on. It was a huge opening, it was sold out every night, and Ariane Mnouchkine insisted that we had to shut the doors and start the show and that no latecomers would be admitted. So right before the show started we would grab people off the street who didn’t have tickets and throw them into empty seats. Anyone who came after the show started was just out of luck. And that was a bit of a crazy experience. But it was really important theater to put on. And what we did out front was a part of that.
Q: How have you seen BAM change over 25 years that you’ve worked there?
A: In some ways BAM is wildly different than it used to be. When I first started, Harvey Lichtenstein was still there, and he was the boss with a capital T and a capital B. And I often describe the way it felt in my original days as, “Let’s put up a curtain and do a show.” As the institution has grown and benefited from the technologies available, BAM has become more of a well-oiled machine. But even though it’s changed a lot there’s definitely a common thread that is BAM. It’s the authenticity of the work that continues to be the most important thing.
Susannah Gruder works at an arts production company and is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on twitter at @myfriendsue.