Every year before its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” the Guthrie Theater stocks up on extra vomit powder. It’s not just for kids who geek out on sugary treats and then get sick while attending the Twin Cities’ most beloved holiday tradition. It’s also to help adult patrons who dip a little too deeply in the yuletide sauce.
“There’s a Christmastime phenomenon where some people overdo it with food and drink, then come to the theater to see a show and barf,” said Sue Kotila, director of visitor services at the Guthrie. “It happens at least once a week. And when it does, we sprinkle the powder on it. It goes from liquid to solid — an easy cleanup.”
Kotila and her counterparts at some of the leading playhouses in the Twin Cities don’t get regular applause or any sort of spotlight like the charismatic actors onstage do. But these low-key employees perform essential chores in the performing arts, dealing with patron concerns from lost items to medical emergencies. At Labor Day, it’s time to honor these hardworking background artists.
Their titles vary: house services manager at the State and Orpheum theaters, director of guest services at the Ordway Center, house manager at the Children’s Theatre.
They greet, guide and meet the needs, quirks and crises of the public bursting through their doors.
The patrons “are our guests, and there’s no one more important to us,” said Kris Howland, director of public relations and customer service at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, which welcomes a quarter-million people annually to its shows, receptions and other events. “When they come here, we want them to feel like they’re coming home.”
“We think of them like family,” said Kotila of the Guthrie, which draws more than 400,000 people annually to its iconic riverfront complex. “And as with any family coming for a visit, you want them to leave happy and well-fed.”
The patrons may come for a day or night out at venues whose combined annual attendance exceeds 1.5 million people. That’s a lot of family. And while most are well-behaved and present, some are absent-minded and forgetful. They leave behind things like car keys, phones, toys and dentures.
“How you leave the theater without your teeth is always an interesting concept,” said Jerry Knock, who has been house services manager at the State and Orpheum theaters for the past 23 years and has seen it all.
The left-behind list also includes articles of clothing such as scarves and gloves and, occasionally, lingerie.
During the long run of “I Do, I Do” at Chanhassen, the post-performance cleanup crew would sometimes find women’s underwear.
“It was a romantic play, but you think that somebody would remember to take that with them,” said Howland, who has worked at the theater for 43 years.
Virginia Fairchild, who has been senior patron experience manager at Children’s Theatre for the past nine months, moved to the Twin Cities from Tempe, Ariz., where she held a similar position. There, she said, a patron to a performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” left a walker behind.
“Maybe they were particularly moved by the story,” Fairchild said. “Maybe it was a testament to the power of theater.”
People who need people
While much of the world is using automation and robots to handle tasks formerly done by humans, theater remains a human-intensive activity, not just onstage but in the audience, as well.
“Whether laundering a napkin or fetching creamer or making a cocktail, we need people to do those things,” said Howland of Chanhassen, which has 300 full- and part-time employees, all of whom are considered part of customer relations. “We’re dealing with people-to-people contact.”
The theater staff regularly works long hours and they are also on call for emergencies. Kotila, who oversees 70 paid staff and 450 volunteer ushers at the Guthrie, recalls having to check into a nearby hotel during a snow emergency last year, but it didn’t faze her. She and her crew were able to help people have a good time in a snowmageddon.
“This is not a job, per se, but a lifestyle,” said Kotila, who tries to take Mondays and Thursdays off. “I love what I do. I love taking care of patrons. And I pack a lot of living in my days off.”
And she gets gratification from patrons who have more stories of joy and appreciation than of horror.
“We want to bring a ‘Wow’ to our guests,” said Knock of the State and Orpheum theaters, which has 400,000 people streaming through its doors annually.
Recently, a patron came to the opening night Broadway tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Orpheum to celebrate her 100th birthday. The audience sang happy birthday to her at intermission.
Tammie Weinfurtner, director of guest services at the Ordway Center, remembers a young patron with a terminal illness whose lifelong wish was to see “Les Misérables.” Weinfurtner and her staff made it happen during one of the 11 tour productions of the classic musical to land at the St. Paul venue.
“We worked with our paramedics to get her in the building safely and set her up to watch the show,” said Weinfurtner, who has been at the Ordway for 16 years and started as an usher. “It was hard because she wasn’t with us much longer, but that sticks with me — granting someone’s final wish.”
Back to the theme
Still, the incidents that make you go “Eww” stand out. Upchuck is a shared theme.
For Thomas Rohde, Children’s Theatre’s house manager for the past 16 years, his worst story happened during the run of “Aladdin” about a dozen years ago: “It was about 10 minutes before intermission, we had one young person who came to the theater and their dinner didn’t agree with them. This is a projectile vomit story that extends across the lobby and down the stairs. We had about 10 minutes to powder and cover and clean, and we were successful!”
For good measure, he remembers that the dinner included chicken and greens, though he cannot name the particular vegetable.
“Nobody comes to the theater thinking they’re gonna be sick and vomit all over other guests,” Knock said. “It was at ‘Mamma Mia,’ and we had a family who came and the son was really ill and they took their seats in the balcony. He took out people in three to four rows down on the main floor. Fortunately, we keep a stash of T-shirts around for such circumstances.”
These house managers all think of things that most patrons never consider. Nearly all the venues have clothing for patrons who may need some for whatever reason.
Should a young patron have an accident at Children’s Theatre, the staff takes pains to make sure that the situation is resolved with minimum attention or fuss.
“More often than not, it’s kids spilling something on themselves, but sometimes they wet themselves,” Rohde said. “The key thing in a situation like that is that we don’t want the kids to feel embarrassed. Stuff happens. We don’t want them to feel any kind of barrier to them rejoining their friends to enjoy the rest of the show.”