As manager of, one of the West End’s best-loved and most well-known theatres, Gareth Parnell’s job is a job unlike most others… in the second part of our interview, Gareth tells us how he got into theatre management, and how it feels to be working in such a world-famous theatre…
What did you do in the theatre before this role?
When I left university, I was at a bit of a loose end so I had to go home, and I worked on the stage crew at the Plymouth Theatre Royal for going on for a year and again it was great grounding – to actually spend nearly a year in the crew and then end up as a theatre manager creates an understanding.
You studied drama at college – did you ever want to appear on the other side of the curtain?
I had a cabaret theatre troupe who were supposed to follow me after uni, from Swansea to London, but they didn’t! So I did think about being onstage at one point, but I fell into this kind of role after seeing an ad in The Stage and getting the job.
So it was never something you planned?
I didn’t plan for it, but once I landed in it I thought, ‘this is alright,’ and I hope that by now I’ve got the hang of it!
You can’t see yourself doing anything else?
No – my ambitions lie here really. If something came up, I’d look at it, but I have such an allegiance to this theatre in particular it would be hard to tear myself away. I could go to an office, but this is a calling, it’s almost a vocation really, I do feel like I’m the guardian of this theatre. If somebody tells me I have to go then I suppose I have to go, but until then…!
What advice would you give to others who wanted to get into theatre management?
As early as you can, if you’re in drama school or something, get yourself into a theatre and work front of house and just see what it’s about, because you can get a really good understanding of what it is about – how a theatre ticks. As I said earlier, once you get into the business there is a system where we can identify people working for us and ask “how would you feel about a career in theatre management?”.
Would you say most people who come into this industry are aspiring actors?
I think there are a lot of them. My two closest colleagues, Claire and Laura, were both trained as artists and for one reason or another they didn’t go down that route but are working with me, for their sins! It’s what makes this working environment unique, you know – theatre people tend to be fantastic, in my experience! They’ve all got their stories and drama school, for instance, gives you a good grounding and discipline.
What’s your favourite thing about the job?
Working in a big enthusiastic team which has one goal – at the end of the day, to get toe doors open at 6.45, show up at 7.30, and give people a time that they’ll never forget.
And the worst thing?
An aspect of our audience which can come to the theatre in an inappropriate fashion, shall we say, and distract others. I think that’s terribly selfish – and it’s a growing phenomenon unfortunately. We try and deal with it as best we can. There are decent people with consideration and there are some people who are ignorant, unfortunately – like we had some people the other day who were actually upset when we confiscated their phone after they were caught redhanded filming the show!
Have you ever had any disasters during the show?
Oh yes! (Laughs). Probably one of the best is when we had Charles and Camilla come to see a performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the first thing that happened was that there were two sets of tickets for their seats, and the other party arrived first and refused to get out of their seats – they were double-booked. A rather shadowy man in a dark suit came over to me and said, ‘you will do whatever it takes to get His Royal Highness in his seats, or else…’ So I offered this other party two bottles of champagne and I think all of my worldly goods to get them out. And they were a very playful couple. He was an Irish journalist and he said to me, ‘who are these seats for, if you don’t mind me asking?’ So I said, ‘the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles…’ and he kept me hanging on for a little while longer before he actually agreed to leave the seats.
But he did, and the royal party was seated, and then ten minutes before the interval the set fell down and the show was abandoned…! It was disaster of disasters. Mind you, I was concerned he (Prince Charles) thought he was actually coming to see Mary Poppins, because he said he was looking forward to ‘Supercalafragalistic’ (laughs)!
Have you ever been starstruck by anybody, in the audience or onstage?
No, to be honest with you. I don’t know whether I’m just immune to that now. Actually I’ve met pretty much anybody from Michael Jackson to Madonna. But I think I must have a starstruck immune gene. You just have to get on with it… it’s not good to be starstuck really, or you’d end up backstage every five minutes!
What’s the most unusual complaint or request you’ve ever had from an audience member?
We have loads of people who want to propose to their partner during the show and things like that. ‘Can the cast sing Happy Birthday halfway through the show…?’ we get all of that.
What’s your perfect day off?
Good question. Probably one where I don’t have to come into the West End. Just spending time with family really… having a lie-in!
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