Broadway’s chaperone

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The Helen Hayes Theatre’s house manager reflects on his three decades on the Great White Way


  • Richard Ponce, the house manager at the Helen Hayes Theatre, has worked in Broadway theaters for more than 30 years. Photo

It’s like being on crew, being a stage manager. You’re part of the show.... I love my part of it. I love being a host, if you will. I love making people feel comfortable, making people feel welcome.


Richard Ponce is no stranger to Broadway. Over the last 32 years, he has worked as both a house manager and an assistant house manager at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, The Westside Theatre, The Manhattan Theatre Club, and is currently the house manager at the newly opened Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. During his decades-long career, Ponce has been Broadway’s “fly on the wall,” having watched luminaries like Uta Hagen, Cynthia Nixon and Frances McDormand light up Broadway’s stages night after night. After a Wednesday evening performance of Second Stage Theater’s “Straight White Men” (currently playing at the Hayes, the company’s new home on Broadway), Ponce, 50, sat down with us to chitchat about bizarre audience behavior, his dream of dancing in the musical CATS, and the joys of having spent a life in the theater.

How long have you been working in the New York theater scene?

I started at the Lortel [Theatre] in 1986, so I have been in the theater in New York for 32 years. Which is kind of amazing since I am only 30. I don’t know how I did it.

How did you get your start?

I remember when my brother and I moved here when we were really young. I was 17. He was 18. I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to be in “CATS,” I wanted to be in “A Chorus Line.” I wanted to take Broadway by storm. The problem was that I did not have the talent, but it didn’t stop me from taking lessons at STEPS.

I didn’t think house manager would be a career. But when I graduated, I did an internship at Playwrights Horizons. I worked in casting for a year, did house managing at the Lortel, and did house managing for the Wednesday matinées at the Westside. I also worked in several press offices ... For David Rothenberg, Philip Rinaldi, Tony Origlio and David Gersten.

What does a house manager do?

I’m responsible for the house [of the theater], that no one is interrupted, that everyone gets the best experience possible. That the AC isn’t too cold or too hot. and that everyone is safe. It’s the one aspect of the show that people don’t see. You’re protecting the show.... You’re doing the best that you can to make the experience as wonderful as you’d want it to be for yourself. If people leave not seeing how well the house was managed, then I’ve done my job.

What’s the best part of the job?

You’re connected to it. You’re connected to the ebb and flow of the show. I inevitably have a relationship with the audience. Sometimes it’s challenging, sometimes it leads to an argument, sometimes it can be profoundly life changing.

When I was working on “Wit” (on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Cub), my mother had [just] passed away in 2009. I had gone through that hospital experience of watching my mother die, and I didn’t want to share that with anyone. I didn’t talk about it for three years until “Wit,” but because the nature of the show, people would come up to me, saying “my brother died of cancer, my father died of cancer.” And I’d respond about how my mother had died of cancer. And that exchange healed me in so many ways, and in some way I hope I healed them. We had a shared experience, and a shared experience of the play as well. We were both moved by the play, because of our loss. That’s part of the experience of the job.

Another part of the job is watching the play develop. You get to be there from the beginning. I got to watch “The Assembled Parties” develop at MTC. I got to be the fly on the wall and see Lynne Meadow work, and Hal Prince work, and be that support and be a part of the experience.

How many times have I heard these wonderful plays.... I hear them over and over [every night], and I learn so much. And a work like “Wit”.... That literally changes you. I remember seeing that show, and it made me decide to be a better person.

What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve seen an audience member do?

An audience member once carried a gun into the theater, and shot their partner in the foot. It happened at the Lucille Lortel in 1990. Toward the end of the run of “Steel Magnolias.” It was during the show, and for some reason, there was a married couple, and one of them had a gun, and was passing the gun around. It dropped to the floor, and shot this person in the foot. We had to stop the show, and call an ambulance. That was the most bizarre.

How have audiences changed over the last 20 years?

Just the immediacy of turning things on and off has affected the audience. There’s less patience for shows that are longer than two hours. People can’t seem to wait to use the rest room, people go in and out of the theater.... But, you know, it really depends on the show. If you have a great show, all of that stuff doesn’t seem to matter. Do you have a lot of people walking out of “Hamilton” to use the restroom? I don’t think so. If you have a good product, none of the other stuff should really matter.

Why have you done house managing all these years? What motivates you to get up every morning and do it?

It’s the adrenaline of the running of the show. It’s like being on crew, being a stage manager. You’re part of the show.... I love my part of it. I love being a host, if you will. I love making people feel comfortable, making people feel welcome. I love engaging in conversation with people. I’ve talked to old people who have seen the original production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” you can learn so much from people. You’re the person that they yell at if they’re too cold, too hot, if their seat is uncomfortable. But that’s part of it. If there’s a way you can make it easier for them, great. I wanna be that person. That’s what keeps me going. It’s really rewarding. I have never missed a day of work. I just love being there.

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