February 5, 2015
If you’re among the thousands of theatergoers who attend performances each season at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, chances are you’ve crossed paths with Nora Conley, who is both Box Office Manager and Front of House Manager at the theater. Due to the skillful execution of her duties, the staff has affectionately dubbed her “Queen of the Audience Experience.”
Before joining the theater world, the Holbrook native earned her BA in communication studies at Bridgewater State College. After graduation she was exploring options for an advanced degree when University College Dublin caught her eye. The university’s master’s program focused on arts management and cultural policy. The added bonus would be moving to Ireland for a year to study.
“I have family there, our heritage [is there],” she said. “Grad school in Europe is cheaper than New York – that was a big thing. And it was a chance for an adventure. So I thought, why not?
In anticipation of heading to Dublin, she secured her Irish citizenship. “I got it because my grandmother was born in Ireland (the Quinns of Connemara) . . . I knew it would just make things easier . . . I wouldn’t have to worry about a visa. I had an Irish passport, too, so travel would be easier if I traveled around Europe. I also thought it would be kind of cool to have.”
It was at University College that her future in the arts came into much sharper focus. An internship was a requirement of the program. “That’s what really interested me,” she said. “They required you to do a two-month internship – a real world experience.”
She took a position at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. “And that’s really when I fell in love with working in the theater,” she said.
Smock Alley, which dates back to 1662, ranks as the first Theater Royal built in Dublin. The theater’s website notes that it “was the first custom-built theatre in the city and still remains in substantially the same form, making it one of the most important sites in European theatre history.”
The structure itself has endured a varied past. The building ceased to operate as a theater in 1787, becoming a whiskey distillery. It later evolved into a church and eventually a bar. The building closed completely in 2002 for a six-year renovation, and Smock Alley reopened as a professional theater in 2012, just as Nora arrived.
“There was minimal staff,” she said, “so I had a lot of things to do.” When the theater reopened, “they had a big opening night party – that was a lot of fun. I helped plan that, get that executed and see that come to fruition.”
Commenting on the theater’s initial programming, she said, “They had just started producing their own productions. When I was there, they did some Irish classics. ‘Playboy of the Western World.’ ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ . . . They also rented out the theater to other companies, so there was a wide variety of shows.”
“The staff was very warm and welcoming,” she said. “They made me feel like part of the family.”
Oddly enough, a favorite Dublin memory involves sharing the seemingly non-Irish occasion of Thanksgiving with an international blend of faces. “There were a couple of American students in my program so we decided to throw our own Thanksgiving,” she said. “We invited the rest of our class – there were 26 of us all together – and everyone showed up and brought food. It was nice to be able to hang out as a group outside of classes and share something so American with them.”
Having thoroughly enjoyed her time in Dublin, Conley considered staying in Ireland. “I thought about it toward the end, but I was exhausted,” she said. “I had just finished up my thesis (comparing arts education in the United States and Ireland). Grad school was tough and I was low on money. So it was kind of like, I need to go home and recharge and figure things out. Time was up. Maybe I’ll go back some day and maybe even live there some day. But for now, time to go home.”
She returned to Boston and landed a job at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which was looking for someone to begin work immediately. Although she enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t a full time position.
Last fall Conley joined the staff at Lyric where “basically I’m in charge of anything ‘Guest Communications – The Guest Experience.’ Box office-wise, I oversee and help sell tickets and subscriptions. I also do the financial stuff and make sure that’s in order.”
Managing front of the house operations “is the more fun part of the job,” she said. “But it’s also more chaotic. Half an hour before the start of the show I’m responsible for making sure everybody gets in their seat and that the show starts on time.”
This is often where a major part of her interaction with theatergoers occurs. Lost tickets, double seating, last minute problems and requests require her to be a multi-tasking problem solver. “You need to be able to think quickly on your feet. And keep everybody happy. And get the show started on time!”
Conley notes that Lyric’s season continues with the evocative Lynn Nottage drama “Intimate Apparel”; the Cy Coleman musical comedy homage to 1940s film noir Hollywood, “City of Angels”; and the classic Moss Hart backstage comedy, “Light Up The Sky,” coincidentally set during a seemingly disastrous Broadway tryout in Boston.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Lyric Stage Company of Boston is at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston’s Back Bay. Tickets: 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com.