Student engagement at the university box office

Encouraging Student Engagement at the Box Office

A Q&A with Bill Larson, Operations Manager at Washington University's Edison Theatre

Katie Rzendzian Member Spotlight

With a laundry list of university organizations that students are encouraged to join, it can be a challenge to attract and maintain an engaged student base. So, how do you keep students engaged and activated in their roles as university box office staff?

Bill Larson, Operations Manager at Washington University in St. Louis’ Edison Theatre, has a few ideas.

We sat down with Bill to pick his mind about keeping students engaged, equipping them with a handy professional skill set and preparing them for successful futures.

Q. Can you tell us about your organization, the types of events you produce and your role there?

Edison Theatre is located on the Washington University campus, here in St. Louis, Missouri. It has a 45 year history of presenting music, theater and dance events that challenge, educate and inspire audiences. Our mission is to serve the Washington University Performing Arts department, student cultural groups and arts organizations in the St. Louis area.

The Edison Theatre interior.

Edison Theatre interior

Photo courtesy of Edison Theatre

As operations manager, I oversee the staff at two performing arts venues. I also manage budgets, payroll, deposits, billing, ticketing, box office, marketing and front-of-house event management.

Q. How do you involve students in your organization?

We hire approximately 45 students to serve as crew, production assistants, house managers and box office staff. Most of them have little or no experience in the arts, so we train them in everything. They learn about lighting, running the soundboard, ticket sales, managing volunteer ushers and creating email marketing campaigns.

Students getting some hands-on experience.

Students examine stage set-up for Sparks Circus performance
Students manage the Edison Theatre box office

Photos courtesy of Edison Theatre

We strongly believe that hands-on experience is the best learning method and we give them a lot of responsibility running the show. One of the most rewarding parts of the job is watching a student grow their skill set over the course of four years. We intentionally put students in situations that will challenge them so they gain the ability to respond quickly to solve problems in high pressure situations.

Q. How do you structure your team?

Edison Theatre has two full-time technical directors that supervise a 24-person tech crew. Our 560 Music Center is managed by two full-time staff that supervise another 12 student production assistants. The operations manager supervises 12 student box office staff and house managers. There’s also a student box office manager that coordinates schedules, assists in training and reconciles ticket sales for deposits.

Q. How do you keep students engaged and activated in their roles?

We take the “three C’s” approach—communication, caring and community. Keeping an open dialogue with students is key to keeping them engaged. The students like feedback on how they are doing. They like knowing that when they go the extra step to serve a patron or address a technical issue, that it is acknowledged and appreciated.

Constructive feedback is also appreciated because the students want to be good at their job. We make it a point to let them know we care how they are doing. Not just at work, but in their life outside of work as well.

Q. How do you create a sense of community outside of the theater?

We’ve done many group functions outside of work, including attending theater events at other St. Louis venues and having staff parties in our homes. For birthdays we bake cupcakes so each student has their own “baking day” (including a personalized mini-cake for them to take home). Students who are not on the clock will often come by the office during the day just to say “hi” and visit. They share everything from their triumphs on tests to disastrous blind dates. I love my job precisely because of the community we’ve created.

Students express their theatre community through many artistic mediums…

Student community art project thanksgiving turkeys
Student charcoal drawing of the box office community

Photos courtesy of Edison Theatre

Q. How do you empower students and prepare them for successful futures?

By giving them challenging responsibilities. If a microphone goes out during the middle of a song, the student working as the live sound engineer has to communicate to the deck crew how to get the situation resolved as seamlessly as possible. A house manager has to figure out how to get a theater full of patrons seated when only half of the ushers show up. Live theater gives students experience to think on their feet and to be able to solve problems on a moment’s notice. Many of our graduates reference the skills they developed in the theater when they apply for jobs that aren’t even related to the arts.

Ballerinas backstage utilizing the power of team work.

Student ballerinas working together behind the scenes

Photo courtesy of Edison Theatre

Q. Can you give me an example?

A couple years ago we had a student box office manager write a computer program and create a custom website that the box office staff used to sign up for show shifts. In his job interview, the recruiters were more impressed with his initiative in creating the website than some of his academic achievements. It ultimately got him a fantastic job in the tech industry.

Q. What types of professional skills do you equip them with?

The Edison staff gives our technical student staff opportunities in lighting, sound, rigging and stage management. While only a small number of our students pursue a career in technical theater, we give them hands-on opportunities to use what they are learning in the classroom in a professional setting. In addition to practical knowledge, our students also enter the workforce with excellent customer service, leadership, confidence and problem-solving skills.

Q. What have been your most effective methods for promoting shows?

When students who are involved with a production actively work to promote the show to their friends, we draw the largest audiences. Our most successful events are the student cultural shows, which have a cast of 150 student performers. We will sell out each performance for those shows because the participants are actively promoting the show to their friends. And of course, the students want to see their friends perform.

Students involved in a production actively promote to their friends.

A student ballet performance on the Edison stage

Photo courtesy of Edison Theatre

Q. What are some of your hopes for the future of your organization?

Our theater serves as the primary outlet for the arts for the entire campus community. Two years ago, the presenting series of touring artists for Edison Theatre was eliminated due to funding concerns and shifting budget priorities. Because of this, our faculty, staff, and students currently have no opportunity to experience professional touring artists in music, theater and dance on campus. Our hope is that we can include touring companies in future seasons. It would send a positive message to our students that the performing arts truly are an integral part of their education and college experience.