Are you following the Curtain Up rule?

I don’t know about you, but I’m generally pretty punctual. I’ve been an actor for over 30 years and the one thing you learn as an actor is that if the curtain goes up at 7:30 you’re NEVER late!

But how many times have you joined a Webinar or a Zoom call and heard the Chair say, ‘We’ll just wait a few minutes for the others to join’? The stragglers eventually turn up by about five or ten past, with no apology for their lateness, having wasted your valuable time.

The tradition in the theatre is that all actors have to be in the building before ‘The Half’. You might well think that The Half would be half an hour before Curtain Up. But, actually, actors must sign in at the Stage Door thirty five minutes before Curtain Up. Backstage, the show doesn’t start at 7.30. It starts at 7.25. The actors are ready in their dressing rooms, the Stage Manager makes the tannoy announcement, ‘Beginners to the Stage’, the actors make their way down to the wings, and so at 7.30 they’re all in position ready for Curtain Up.

For me, being five minutes early is deeply ingrained. In fact, it started way back.

I grew up in Lancashire about 45 minutes from Manchester. As small children, our parents drove us once a year to Kendals, the big Department Store, to meet Father Christmas. My mother used to say that we had to leave the house at five to nine because, if we did, all the traffic lights would all be green. But if we left at five past nine all the traffic lights would all be red. This was, of course, clearly not the case. It’s just that if you leave at five to nine, you don’t notice the odd red light, so it feels like all the lights are green. If you leave at five past nine, and are running late, you’re irritated by every red light, so you get the feeling that they’re all red.

So I’ve always been a ‘five to …’ person. Life is much easier that way. And the traffic lights are always green!

But clearly on video conference calls this is not an approach shared by everyone. So, the question is: Should the Chair of an online meeting start at the allotted time or keep everyone waiting for the late comers?

Well, if you arrived late for the theatre you wouldn’t be surprised that the show had already started. And because we know that, we take our seats a couple of minutes early. It’s not acceptable for an actor to walk on stage five minutes late and say to the audience, ‘Sorry there was a traffic jam on the M25.’

I think we should all try to follow the Curtain Up rule.

So, as the Chair, you do the right thing, log on early and admit the early attendees. But you’re waiting for the stragglers. This begs another question: How do you fill this embarrassing void? And how can you create a sense of expectation about the upcoming webinar or meeting?

A few years ago, I was coaching the auctioneers at Christies and one of the auctioneers asked me, ‘When does the show start? I assume it’s the moment I climb into the rostrum with my gavel?’ I said, ‘No, the show starts the moment the audience first sees you. As the auctioneer, you’ll arrive in the room a few minutes early and can be seen talking to dealers or telephone bidders. The audience will be watching and judging. You can’t wait until you climb the rostrum steps to turn on the charisma button.’

And on a video conference call, it’s our job as Host, Chair or Speaker to log on early and then consciously create a sense of excitement right away. We must remember that the show starts the moment we enter the virtual meeting room. Just as, if we had a party at home, we wouldn’t open the front door to welcome the first guest and say, ‘Please stand there on your own for a few moments, I not going to say anything until everyone else gets here.’

So remember, that the party starts as soon as you enter the room. And if the Webinar is supposed to start at 11, it’s Curtain Up at five to 11!


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