So, as those who follow me on Twitter will know, this Wednesday I was prevented from seeing Waste at the National Theatre as the ushers decreed my handbag was too big. A shock, for sure. It’s just my handbag. But they said, no way. If I wanted to see the show, I had to check the whole bag into the cloakroom.
I tried to argue that it was just my handbag. What on earth were they on about? It wasn’t a suitcase. And where did this policy come from? Plus I needed the entire contents of my bag anyway – my glasses, my water bottle, pad and pens, and a bag of Dairy Milk Buttons as sustenance for the three-hour show ahead of me.
I was told that this was a response to the Paris attacks and not ‘to make a fuss.’
Well, this was a very sudden response as only the day before I had been at the National to see Evening at the Talk House at the Dorfman. Very same handbag accompanied me (it’s my only handbag. I’m a writer so I can’t afford more than one) and there were no problems. None at all. The ushers at the Dorfman weren’t even checking bags at all.
But all this crashed on the rocks of the stony faced usher outside the Lyttleton who said, point blank, with my bag she wasn’t going to let me in. No go.
It was 7.29pm at this point and I was like, shit, I’m going to miss the show. I needed everything in my bag and didn’t want the aggro of checking in my bag, (which I really, really didn’t think I needed to do), to stagger in with all the contents of my bag in my hands, only to then queue up at 10.30pm for half an hour to pick it up again.
So I found the floor supervisor and said, really, there’s no reason at all not to let me in with my handbag. It’s a handbag for christ’s sake. And do you know what she said to me? Do you know what this staff member said to me after my bag had been refused on security grounds by one of her colleagues?
“Why don’t you try the other entrance to the Lyttleton and see if you can sneak the bag past them. Perhaps those on the other side might let you in.”
Just run that through your head for a minute. My bag is judged a security risk by one member of staff. So her colleague suggests I should try and hoodwink other members of staff by sneaking it in through another set of doors.
What. The. Hell???
I know, chaos right? But by this time it was 7.35pm. The doors to the auditorium were closed so I thought, sod it, I’m going home.
Of course, I actually have a lot of sympathy with the NT here. It is a knee-jerk response, yes, and their implementation is all over the place but, given they are public spaces, theatres are going to have to respond to the Paris attacks. The challenge for theatres is, how can they keep their audiences safe?
I’m still in ‘discussion’ with the NT about a ticket replacement for Waste. And still, days later, the NT are not able to confirm whether they will allow my handbag into the same Lyttleton next Thursday to see Here We Go, which I have tickets for.
The NT, it seems, is still having internal discussions on what their bag policy will be. Because it seems inevitable now that there will be one.
Options on the table include having a definitive non-negotiable allowable bag size, as they do on planes. Only that size will be infinitesimally smaller than what is allowed on planes.
Another option up for discussion is, similar to airports, the NT will require audiences to check all bags into the cloakrooms and to decant what they want to take into the theatre into a transparent plastic bag.
The message is simple – changes are coming. The Paris attacks have challenged how public spaces are managed and theatres, as part of that, will have to respond.
Bag searches are already commonplace in our galleries. But the question I’ve found myself asking is, how much inconvenience can theatres put on their audiences before it passes a tipping point and audiences just stop coming?
Let’s think about this. If you were told that you would be required to check in your bag, of whatever size, into the cloakroom before the show, decant anything you need into a see-through plastic bag (provided) to take into the theatre, then add 30mins after the curtain call to queue up and get your bag, would you go to the theatre? Would you really still go?
At best, I fear audiences are likely to go less frequently, picking and choosing which shows they make the effort for. Certainly I feel that about myself. Currently I go three or four times each week. But that will go down to about once a week if I’m having to set aside another 45 minutes each time to check in and retrieve my bag.
Theatre is already expecting tough times ahead with funding challenges. There is now a real possibility that new security measures brought in to keep audiences safe will be so onerous and stringent, that audiences may just simply stay away.
Theatres have a very difficult decision ahead of them.