Arts staff learn how to deal with aggression


Hugh Dougherty

The performance space at Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree arts venue is lit up and some 15 figures look as if they’re rehearsing moves for a play’s fight sequence. Some are putting their palms up in front of their faces to ward off attack. Others are pulling aggressors away from colleagues and there’s action aplenty. 

But this is not a part of the centre’s theatre programme. The clue is in the fit figure, fitting between the bodies, offering encouragement here, showing where the hands should be there. 

For what’s going down at the Lemon Tree is a Maybo Scotland, one-and-a-half-day course in personal safety for duty managers, bar and front-of-house staff, employed by Aberdeen Performing Arts, the body which runs the city’s His Majesty’s Theatre, Music Hall and Lemon Tree itself. 

It’s being presented by Maybo trainer, Mike Greville, a retired Strathclyde police officer who was booked by APA. The body’s HR manager, Jane Hepburn, explains: “Most people are surprised to learn that theatre and arts venue staff are subject to aggression and even violence at work. But they are. Although the vast majority of our patrons come to our venues to enjoy themselves, there is a growing majority of audience members who come fuelled up on drink or drugs and the result is that our staff and other law-abiding audience members are intimidated. I felt that we had to train our staff to know what action to take and how to take it.” 

Mr Greville, who gained extensive experience of conflict resolution during his police career, heads up the Scottish operation of nationally-based training organisation Maybo, with fellow retired officer Alex Hossack. Public sector bodies, including council and health boards, are prominent among their clients, although working with an arts organisation is a first, Mr Greville admits. “What’s becoming clearer to us is that there’s a latent and growing aggression in society, perhaps fuelled by the harsh economic times we’re in, with many people taking out their anger on front-line workers,” he says, “It makes good sense to train staff to deal with situations which may arise.” 

The Aberdeen arts staff learned the theory and practice of assault avoidance and disengagement, with grounding in when it’s legal to use force and how to apply it, But, above all, Mike and Maybo begin by teaching trainees how to reduce the risk of conflict, by taking primary avoidance.

One of the staff asks if her long hair is likely to be pulled by a would-be assailant. “Let’s go back to primary avoidance,” advises Mike. “Tie your hair up when you go on duty so it can’t be pulled. Always try to avoid situations arising.” 

None of the techniques are about conquering a would-be assailant. There’s an emphasis on stance, attitude, making space and using the palms; open palms to encourage communication, and active palms to shield the face, creating a wedge to push an assailant away and then, crucially, to move away and get help. 

Mike Greville says problems may be caused by a minority, but employers have the duty of care to both their staff and their customers.

“It makes sense to ensure that front-line people have training if and when things do kick off. We’ve also been working with voluntary organisations where staff deal with some very difficult clients and I can see a rising demand for courses from right across the public, private and voluntary sectors, wherever staff come into contact with the public.” 

Trainees also practise dealing with grips and grabs, using a motion called ‘having a drink’, which with a cradled hand, allows a member of staff to release themselves from a wrist grip. Releasing a clothing grab, rescuing a colleague being assaulted and guiding a person out of a venue, safely and effectively, are also among the techniques covered. 

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Mark Jenner's picture

Mark Jenner's picture