Monday, December 7, 2009

Usher Lessons: An Ongoing Series

Today's lesson is about crowd control. The key to maintaining control is early prophylactic action. If one waits too long, the prohibited activity spreads like a virus until it's too late to stop the infection. Then all you can do is treat the symptoms. Allow me to illustrate.

Saturday and Sunday nights, I worked in the arena seating area for University commencements. One of our goals was to keep people from gathering against the rails above where the students' processional entered the arena. There's nothing parents and grandparents like better than capturing every moment of little Johnny's triumphant achievement on camera, so they gather en masse at the railings, leaning on them, putting more and more weight on them, jockeying for better and better position, until a potentially dangerous situation is created. Since we prefer to make the evening news for our wonderful events and not our tragic incidents, we do our best to prevent that situation from arising in the first place.

One usher told me the story of a patron in a previous year's commencement even dangling a baby, Michael Jackson style, over the railing towards one of the degree candidates. When the usher asked her to step back from the railing, the patron snarled, "But he wants to see the baby!" Wow.

Anyway. What was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Saturday, I decided not to man the rail until the procession began to assemble. Instead, I helped seat patrons, settle disputes over saved seats, help get mobility impaired patrons to the right sections, and the usual load-in fun. By the time I managed to return to the rail, a mob had already formed. A usher supervisor on the floor, who had stood there watching the mob form, told me, "You need to clear that aisle. But you're in charge up there, so whatever you want to do..." Thank you for the help, sir.

By that time, the patrons' idea of their entitlement to that location as a photo opportunity was too well-established; I couldn't do much more than ask them not to lean on the rail and to please return to their seats after they'd taken their picture(s), neither of which pieces of advice they heeded since they'd already digested the idea that they belonged there. Luckily, there were no fights, no pushing, and no one fell over the rail, crushing several students moments before the culmination of their triumphant achievement.

Sunday, I manned that rail from the moment doors opened, and didn't have any problems at all keeping the entire aisle clear. For the most part, all I had to do was stand there, acting as a visual deterrent. I politely informed the first one or two patrons who stepped up to the rail that we had to keep the aisle clear. They returned to their seats. The other patrons, seeing the rejection of these first explorers, didn't even try. It was lovely. It was peaceful. There were no snide comments from my fellow supervisors.

So the lesson is, in crowd control, those first few moments are critical. If you can stop the idea of ownership of space from hardening like epoxy in the minds of the crowd, you're home-free. If you miss that moment, you're screwed.

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