Zwart Wit

Behind the scenes: from buffet service to to online support

One year ago, the foyer of Dutch National Opera & Ballet was packed night after night with enthusiastic visitors, the expectant tension almost tangible in the air. But now the lights stay off, the cloakrooms empty and the buffets unmanned. Not an ideal situation when you normally work as head of a buffet in the theatre. Stella Vrijmoed and Yuki Shibata, who have both been working as theatre employees of NO&B since the end of 2017, know all about this. However, even when there are no physical performances taking place, they provide service to opera and ballet spectators: online, as part of the video support team that offers viewers support during online performances.


"As part of the video support team, we take care of all questions and complaints from guests who want to watch the online streams or performances," Yuki explains. "So, in a way, we are still theatre employees, but now online." This means checking the mailbox several times a day in order to respond to visitors with questions or complaints. "When a new stream has just been launched or a performance is offered in the form of a live stream, it is a lot busier," Stella adds. "Then, you are working for several hours at a time sometimes."


In December a phone number was launched in addition to the mailbox. Stella: "Now, on days when live streams are broadcast, we actually work from the theatre again. From two hours before curtain-up, we are manning box office to assist people by telephone if they experience problems with logging in, among other things. On those days it is completely dark in the theatre, so it sometimes feels strange to be sitting there with just the two of us." Yuki agrees. "Normally, there are 1600 people in the foyer before a sold-out performance and now the theatre is completely empty."


However, the video support employees do not have much time to think about this unusual situation. "I once spent 35 minutes on the phone with an 83-year-old lady during the live stream of a ballet performance. That means that out of the hour and a half that the performance lasted, I spent more than half an hour with just one person. Meanwhile, Yuki had to deal with all the other visitors via e-mail and telephone," says Stella. "The lady I was talking to on the phone was dealing with a weird technical error that I couldn't solve. Usually, we say 'try using another browser', but this lady did not know what a browser was, so I ended up guiding her through the whole process, over the phone of course. Finally, I heard the ballet music in the background and knew that we had succeeded. I think this story illustrates how difficult it is for everyone to have to do everything from home. It is obviously very unfortunate for the dances and singers that they can't perform for a live audience, but it is not easy for the people who have to watch from home either."


Having to help a lot of people in a short time is something that Stella and Yuki are used to as theatre staff. However, as part of team video support, they have got to deal with some technical challenges on top of that. Yuki: "For example, we get a lot of questions about things like Chromecasts and smart TVs and I knew almost nothing about those things before I started with video support. Before I could answer questions about things like these, I googled a lot of things myself or asked friends with a Chromecast to explain to me how everything worked. It can be a challenge sometimes to explain things that you have just figured out yourself to other people, especially over email."


The support that Stella and Yuki offer their viewers is often returned in the form of positive reactions. Stella: "We get such nice reactions! People tell us how much they enjoy the performances and some of them literally support us. They say, for example, 'keep the money, because you have a hard enough time as it is' when a payment has failed.  When I see these positive reactions, I remember why we do this and why people make all this effort to watch the streams: because we all love opera and ballet!

Despite the success of the online streams, both theatre staff members would love to return to their buffets as soon as possible. Yuki: "I do miss the personal contact with the guests. Normally, people come and have a cup of coffee and a chat with you. Now, of course, that is not possible. "This is no different for Stella: "If we continue to stream online performances after the physical performances have been allowed to take place again, I think a whole new video support department will have to be set up. Because we will be back in the theatre then."