Arts: I was a teenage usher

You never know. The person checking your ticket for a West End show might just be the new Simon Callow.
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The Independent Culture
FOR DRAMA students and young unemployed actors it is the perfect part-time job. Free to attend classes or auditions during the day, they are paid about pounds 4 an hour to continue their education in the evening by seeing more experienced performers in action. Granted, they have to sell programmes and help the audience find their seats or the nearest toilet, but there are many more exhausting and less congenial occupations than that of theatre usher.

We won't have realised it at the time, but many of us have had our ticket for a West End show checked by a future star of stage and screen. Jonny Lee Miller, of Trainspotting and Regeneration fame, was on duty at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the early days of Miss Saigon.

Jennifer Pride and Prejudice Ehle may have pointed you to the bar at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue. Long before Inspector Morse, Kevin Whately inspected tickets at the National, as did Simon Callow and Christopher Ecclestone. The list goes on. So next time you buy an interval ice-cream, remember to check out the vendor. You never know who they'll become.

SUSANNAH FELLOWS

currently Mrs Darling in `Peter Pan' at the National

"PETER PAN is my first acting job at the National and the building now feels much warmer and lived in. I began ushering at 15, when the company was based at the Old Vic, and I was a drama student. I liked the sense of community, with company and staff eating together.

I was there in 1971 when Olivier was in Long Day's Journey Into Night. One day he was standing in front of me, in his dressing gown, in the canteen queue. He'd forgotten his glasses and asked me to choose his dinner for him.

That was quite a moment.

I went back to ushering while at LAMDA, and was on duty when the Queen and Princess Margaret opened the National's South Bank building in 1976. I remember workmen hacking bits of concrete off the Olivier circle to improve the acoustic just before the opening.

Christopher Reeve worked in the bar then and, in his pre-Superman days, was quite skinny. I always had a terribly sunny disposition when I was on duty. I'm sure that rubbed some people up the wrong way."

Peter Pan is at the Olivier, RNT (0171-452 3000) to 20 Feb

REBECCA LACEY

currently Dr George Woodman in `Casualty'

"I LEFT school at 18 and ushered at the National for about two years. I didn't go to drama school, so observing so many great actors close up was a fantastic education. I must have watched Guys and Dolls 70 times.

I had great trouble with ice-cream selling in the intervals. In that frantic 15 minutes, people tell you what they want and hand you cash at tremendous speed, and I'd often give them too much change. If your float didn't add up at the end of the evening, then you had to pay the difference out of your own pocket and I would regularly have to pay two or three pounds - when the shift was only paying me pounds 12.

My worst moment came during Stoppard's Rough Crossing in the Lyttleton in 1984. In the middle of one performance, a tall, dark-haired man walked in and stood at the back of the stalls. I told him: `I'm sorry, sir, you can't come in.' He replied: `No, it's alright.' I kept insisting and so did he. People in the audience started shushing us. I'm very short but I attempted to push him into the foyer. Finally he walked out with me and said: `It's alright because I'm Tom Stoppard.' I was a laughing stock for weeks."

EILEEN ATKINS

`The Unexpected Man', `Vita and Virginia', screenwriter of `Mrs Dalloway'

"I WAS 21 when Julian Glover, my then husband, and I moved up to Stratford. He was a member of the RSC for the 1955-56 season. I had worked as an actress but thought I would be giving up the theatre. I went up expecting to just sit at home and be a wife, but RSC actors were paid pounds 6 a week and we desperately needed extra money.

Julian got me a job as an usherette - but I didn't enjoy it. The only memorable thing that happened was that a woman mistook me for the actress Elinor Summerfield, who was very big in rep. She said she felt rather sad that I should be usheretting. Summerfield was a lot older than me but the harder I tried to explain the more the woman thought I was trying to cover up.

I was so frustrated at not being on stage that I almost couldn't bear to watch the productions. I was relieved to be promoted to selling postcards in the foyer. I must have been quite good because I was about to be moved to the box office when, because they were short of actors for crowd scenes, Julian managed to get me into the company."

CHRISTOPHER LUSCOMBE

currently Smee in `Peter Pan'

"USHERING is a very privileged job for an aspiring actor. From 1982 to 1985, I ushered at the National during all my vacations from Cambridge. I was paid pounds 3 an hour, and enjoyed it hugely.

There were some terrible confrontations when you told latecomers they couldn't go in. The most common response was `Don't you know who I am?' from managing directors of big companies.

When Ralph Richardson was in Inner Voices by Eduardo de Filippo, in 1983, he was not well and missed several performances. When the audience found out, some people would demand their money back. You had to convince them that watching another member of the National's company in the part came to the same thing, when you knew and they knew that it didn't.

After Cambridge I went straight into acting, and when I was unemployed I did more ushering. It was suddenly embarrassing to be a National usher when I felt I should have been up on stage.

I know the backstage so well from those days that it's felt oddly familiar being back for Peter Pan."

RICHARD SISSON

composer and pianist, Kit and the Widow

"IN 1979, Kit Hesketh-Harvey and I had just left Cambridge and were sharing a house and working in cabaret. Kit had a soft job as a BBC arts researcher, but I went to work at the Aldwych.

We were known as `ticket checks' and were the lowest in the hierarchy. The ushering was OK, but what was really important was the musical work I picked up. I was sitting in the green room having a coffee and the RSC's musical director asked what I did. When I told him I was a pianist he hired me as assistant musical director for the next show, Bulgakov's The White Guard.

The ticket check uniform was navy blue, with braid. After 18 months I was so attached to it I couldn't bear to think of anyone else wearing it, so I stole it and wore it to fancy dress parties.

The world and its granny used to come to see the RSC. Nureyev was a regular, but I'm not sure whether tearing his ticket is as much of a feather in my cap as serving peas to Indira Gandhi and sausages to Richard Nixon, which I did as a waiter at Claridge's."

`Goodnight Children, Everywhere', with music by Richard Sisson, opens at The Pit (0171 638 8891) on 23 Feb

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