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Theatre’s unsung heroes took centre-stage on Sunday 6th August, when a party was held at Norwich Theatre Royal to celebrate the 116 voluntary stewards who give up their time to keep performances running smoothly.
It marked the 25th anniversary of the stewarding programme – and this was one party that the volunteers wouldn’t be expected to clear up after.
The theatre’s team of volunteer stewards do everything from helping audiences find their seats, to clearing away cushions at the end of the performance. They’ve been doing so since the Theatre Royal re-opened after its major refurb back in 1992.
The group marked the occasion with a get-together including a buffet and a baking competition. The show-stopping ensemble of theatrical homemade cakes included a sponge-and-icing recreation of Mary Poppins’ hat and umbrella, cakes made to look like the theatre’s selection of ice creams, and even one multi-tiered cake baked into the shape of a theatre’s circle seats and stalls.
It was attended by the theatre’s front-of-house staff past and present, chief executive Stephen Crocker, and 83 of the stewards themselves. Among the guests were six members of the stewarding team who have continued to give up their time ever since that very first performance 25 years ago. They were Jackie Aston, Ruth Maddern, Patrick Monaghan, Shirley Tomlin, Mary Watts and Anna Leer.
Anna Leer, discussing her long history of stewarding, said: “Back in those days, you’d be sat in the Theatre alongside a group of smokers, so you can see how much times have changed. In those days, we just checked tickets on the door and hoped we were doing the right thing!
Over the course of 25 years, Anna has seen her fair share of performances: “I’m too nervous to even remember what my first show was. I’ve loved so much of what I’ve seen, but Mamma Mia was something special – it was here for four weeks and we had audiences aged from three to 93, all of them loving it.”
Fellow steward Lesley Anderson said: “I’ve loved every minute of volunteering, ever since I first stewarded a performance of Return To The Forbidden Planet in 1993. I’ve talked to so many fascinating people, I’ve seen things I’d never have expected to see, and I’ve learned so much.
I’ve got so many stories of my time volunteering, stories of the characters that I’ve met and the calamities we’ve had – it’s been a wonderful experience for me.”
Marney Meakin was the theatre’s front of house manager at the time the scheme was introduced in 1992. She explained: “I remember the very start. Peter Wilson had taken over from Dick Condon and we were opening the building after a major refurb, so we were re-thinking how the theatre was going to be run. To provide the number of staff that you truly need would be very expensive, so we hit on the idea of volunteer stewards – and boy have they proved valuable!
Because they come to see things that they wouldn’t necessarily choose, our stewards often discover an unknown passion for opera or dance. And they’re terrific at spreading the word – if they like something, all of Norwich will hear about it! They’re ambassadors for the theatre.”
Matthew Piper, who took over the role from Marney, added: “I think it’s fair to say that as the eyes and ears of the staff here, our voluntary stewards can be relied on to step in to pre-empt problems and smooth things over on countless occasions. We hold around 400 performances a year here, so that’s an awful lot of hours to cover. These stewards do an amazing job, and we’re hugely grateful.”
Stephen Crocker, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal, said: “We calculated that over the past 25 years, our stewards have given around half a million hours of their time: welcoming customers, making them feel at home and making sure that when you come into our building, you’re looked after and shown right to your seat. We can’t thank them enough for that.”