Friday, December 3, 2010

House Manager Appreciation Week interview with CJ Dillon

CJ Dillon photoWhen many theatre patrons visit our venue, most only think of the house manager as a glorified usher or a security guard hell bent on making sure you don't bring your beverage into the house. As one of the most unfairly under-appreciated but much-needed members of a theatre's staff, had the excellent idea to call this week House Manager Appreciation Week. To recognize our Director of Operations and House Manager CJ Dillon, I sat down with him for a short interview about his experiences.

Joe Hallissey: What's your name, title and how long have you been here?

CJ Dillon: My name is CJ Dillon and I'm now the Director of Operations but when we have a show, I'm the House Manager. Fun Times. I've been here for over 3 years in this capacity and in the job of Director of Operations for four months now. The new job has just increased my overall scope but I still do house management.

How did you get started in the performing arts?

I actually went to Roosevelt University. I left the farm in Indiana-

That's a big change.

Yeah! I went literally from the farm to the Loop the second time I ever came to Chicago and moved directly to the Roosevelt dorms. Quite a culture shock. I started as a theater performance major but quickly decided that acting wasn't for me. I actually finished almost three years and decided not to go back for my last year after I realized that I was more interested in theater administration, and it wasn't beneficial to get an acting degree.

After I was out, I got an internship at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre when it was still managed by Livent. back in 1998. I actually started before the building opening by about four days for the first performance of Ragtime. I was also at the Oriental for a couple of years; I did the full 32 week of Ragtime and then went back for a another 18 weeks of Fosse. I worked at the Goodman and the Royal George, then when back to the Oriental when Broadway in Chicago took over and was absorbed into their staff after the takeover. I worked for BiC from 2000 to 2005.

After that I went to Vegas and worked on the big show there - We Will Rock You at the Paris. It never went to Broadway. It was a futuristic musical based on the songs of Queen. It was a lot like Mamma Mia but on crack. It was a fun show. Hated Vegas though but loved the company. Vegas wasn't my style so I came back to Chicago.

For about two years I freelanced around Chicago but realized that at some point I needed a full-time job. Around that time, the Auditorium Theatre was looking at some policy changes and brought me in to do some consulting work for about six months, and I really liked working with Brett [Batterson, Executive Director], Jennifer [Turner, Chief Operating Officer & General Manager] and the rest of the staff. So I decided to sign up, and I have been here ever since.

The Auditorium Theatre: a little bit different than a storefront theatre?

Well, yes and no. In house management, no. You're still taking care of people coming in the building, but since we do a wide-range of shows some days are just like a storefront but on the whole we're all committed to getting people from the front door to their seats and back out again going home happy with their experience. The Auditorium has some unique challenges being a National Historic Landmark. There are only 12 seats in the entire house that don't require a step up. That's unique from some of the other venues I've worked in but after doing shows for 120 years, we know how to to manage the venue's specific challenges.

It also depends on the kind of show. How we, the house management staff responds to an audience for a sold out performance of Furthur versus performance of The Nutcracker are totally different. The audience age and interests are different. For concerts, for example, we want to achieve maximum revenue at the bar but at the same time get the audience out the door and home safely. Safety is always one of our top priorities.

In the time that you've been here, what's the most interesting show you've worked on or seen?

Good question. I'd have to say Fuerza Bruta. With theatre professionals everywhere, we tend to get jaded sometimes, especially from my perspective. Dance is pretty much dance and Broadway is Broadway. Fuerza Bruta was the first big challenge for me Everyone stood the whole time; there were no seats for anyone to sit in. Having the entire audience up on the stage and having them take part of the whole theatre experience was pretty cool. Also, changing the lobby into a lounge really made it unique for the house management staff. After doing eight shows a week month after month, honestly, it gets boring. With this show, the people were really entertained. For us, it pushed the bar for us and gave us something different to think about. At times, it was like managing a nightclub.

Another show that I really loved was the State Ballet of Russia. From an artistic standpoint, the company was really great and excellent to work with.

This might be the same question for you. Do you have a most challenging experience, and do you have a most memorable experience?

As a venue, we're fortunate to have a large inventory of seats so the biggest challenge we have is with people. As a house manager my job is to find out what the issue is and solve it. Most of these can be resolved. The challenges come from when it's something beyond my control: an accident on stage, smoke billowing from the air ducts and trying to figure those things out.

I have a phenomenal staff that deals with those issues in every possible way, and it's nice when there are days when I don't do anything because that means everything's been taken care of. I only see the problem when all other options have been tried and were unsuccessful. We have 70 plus staff who's job is to provide good customer service and when issues get escalated to me, it's generally the most challenging.

Do you ever go home at night, think about something that's happened and wish you could have solved it better?

Yeah, but not a lot. One of the great things about the Auditorium Theatre is the senior management really empowers me to do is make sure that everyone goes home happy. In addition to our patron services department, we have Carl our Assistant House Manager and a second, newly-hired Assistant House Manager, Brandea Turner to help provide the best experience for our patrons.

Generally, when a challenge does come up, both Carl and I will respond with one taking the lead and the other stepping back and observing. Sometimes, the issue could be with me and if my resolution was refused, the same resolution, brought up by Carl could be accepted just because a different person offered it. Throughout all that we do front of house, we definitely do it as a team.

In the time that you've been here, you've seen many of the same patrons; how do you feel about your relationship with the patrons that keep coming back?

We have some awesome subscribers. They're really funny. Not only are they a joy to talk to but are experts in what they're seeing and I really enjoy that aspect. Right when I first started, there was a particularly difficult situation with a subscriber who now comes up and gives me a kiss every time she walks in the theater which is a huge change from when I first met her.

It's really gratifying for me to be able to go home knowing that our subscribers—and all our patrons are coming back because they know they'll be served well.

At some meetings you can't get six people around a conference table to be happy but when you can get four thousand? That's an accomplishment.

We've done a few shows with famous people. Do any celebrities come to mind that were really great to work with?

I have some really great stories. R. Kelly was really interesting, he was really nice. Michael Buble was one of the nicest I've met. After his second show, he invited the staff to go bowling.


Yeah. He actually came back about an hour after show, went to the office and shook everyone's hand. Who does that these days!? That was really nice.

Another time, I was working a Kenny Rogers benefit at the Palace and he was warming up behind the door. I guess he was sitting right behind the door because when I opened it, I knocked him off his stool. That was probably the most embarrassing thing I've done with a star.

So much of my job is dealing with stars, usually guarding them from other people or making sure they have everything they need that I don't get to have the sort of interaction that most people might expect. At the end of the night when work is over, I sometimes suddenly realize, 'Oh my God!'

On a different subject, looking at your desk: it's pretty sparse, but I see you have a candy bowl with Starburst in it. Any significance?

When I was in Vegas, I worked with a company manager who taught me that as a manager you should always have candy on your desk. Everyone in the company is free to come to my office, sit down, have a piece of candy and chat. It's a way to have an open dialogue and make people feel welcome.

And my desk is sparse because I hate clutter. HATE clutter. I can't function if it's not organized. Even this work over here that I need to do [points to a pile of reports] makes me uncomfortable.

We talked about your challenging moments but what are your memorable ones?

Something that's always makes me happy is the memorable moments for other people. When The Nutcracker or another family show comes in, it's really great to see grandparents taking little kids and coming out of the show with big smiles on their faces and hearing about how much they loved the shows. I really enjoy knowing that I'm a part of a patron's happy memory.

Speaking of memorable though, I really can't hear "The Sugar Plum Fairy" when I'm in Macy's and think of Christmas. It always makes me think of work. Similarly, I worked Mamma Mia for 28 weeks and still can't hear an ABBA song without thinking about that show.

What's the difference between Las Vegas crowds and Chicago crowds?

The mentality of Vegas is completely different. There, the casinos completely supported the production. The draw of the show wasn't the show, it was the casino. All of the shows in Vegas are an hour and a half max; they want you back in the casinos right away hitting the slot machines.

Working in Vegas working on We Will Rock You, people would come in wasted. Here people come in for a more cultural experience, there it's just a sideshow. There's now expectation to grow as a person when seeing a Las Vegas show. Sometimes we would have 60% of the house comped out by the hotels just so the casino could get that foot traffic. Every casino has very specific formulas about how much they expect every guest to spend from the minute they walk in the door and to see the show, a person has to walk through the casino floor just to get a ticket. That was a really different experience.

Last question. Three words to describe your job?

Never the same.

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