Go Deeper

The Back Side Of Things, or The Art Of Volunteering

Posted August 10th, 2012

Festival Blog contributor Ellia Bisker is a writer, performer, and all around arts-girl who fronts NYC-based indie rock band Sweet Soubrette.

Glamor moment for volunteers.

When I started volunteering with the circus and variety arts troupe I’ve been working with for a decade now, it was the glamorous aspects of the show that pulled me in. I had no special interest in working in stage management or theater tech; I was just a starry-eyed fan and I wanted to see the show for free. Since then I’ve gone from volunteer to volunteer manager, with some detours along the way (merch girl, performer, board member), and I’ve learned a few things about the magic of stagecraft. I’ve also observed an interesting phenomenon that goes on when it comes to making that magic happen.

At a typical variety show I manage three volunteers, whose efforts are critical to the success of the operation. There’s the roustabout, who gets the privilege of carrying things on and offstage between acts (and occasionally of cleaning up . . . most memorably, after a “synchronized swimming” act left the stage covered in water, to the theater staff’s deep dismay). There’s the merch girl (or guy, but usually girl), who is tasked with trying to charm audience members into buying T-shirts and other wares during intermission and on to the bitter end of post-show socializing, while also keeping track of the money. And there’s the usher/mailing list person, whose responsibilities include getting people seated in orderly fashion and later pestering them to write down their e-mail addresses on a clipboard.

Backstage we’re all just people: the ringmistress and a volunteer share a moment.

In addition to delegating the tasks above, I play house manager, which involves liaising between the theater staff and our people, dealing with miscellaneous odds and ends, and handling unexpected emergencies. Are we ready to start? Are they ready to start? Why is the house music so quiet? Where is the sound guy? Who is on the comp list? Can we have our drink tickets now? Is there a mop handy? Is one of the volunteers willing to wear a Statue of Liberty costume in the next bit? Can we get some ice backstage, like, immediately?

These roles are not exactly glamorous. With a few exceptions (see: Statue of Liberty, above; occasional requests for lovely assistants), the volunteer jobs can be described as distinctly non-glamorous. For clarification, glamorous things include: spangled costumes; false eyelashes; fishnet tights; makeup; three-piece suits; larger-than-life stage characters. Non-glamorous things include: clipboards; spreadsheets; counting the money in the merch bank; carrying heavy things; mops. Put more broadly, glamour involves the end result, the glittery artifice, the successful illusion, while non-glamour involves everything it takes to get there. Presentation vs. process.

Volunteers generally come from one of two camps: fans of the show specifically, or people with an interest in circus arts generally. Either way, almost invariably those who volunteer are in it because they’re drawn by the spectacle. But a funny thing happens, which I’ve experienced personally and observed in every other volunteer who becomes a regular. Over time, the machinery of making the show happen becomes about as interesting as the show itself. At a certain point, the doings of backstage are as consuming as what you see from the house. This is the moment when you find yourself choosing to fold and inventory T-shirts instead of watching the first half of the show because of the satisfaction it gives you.

Peeking in on the process–the talent prepares.

Not everyone gets it. In the case of one recent volunteer—we’ll call him Buster—it was clear from the moment of his arrival that he wasn’t really that interested in helping out behind the scenes. He wanted to perform. So it shouldn’t have been a shock that when a magician needed someone from the audience to assist with a trick and no one came forward, Buster raised his hand. I could have smacked him. Because first of all, it ruins the act when an audience volunteer is obviously a shill, and second, audience volunteers who are performers are the worst, and third, it seemed to me as if Buster thought the role he’d been assigned wasn’t important and had privately aligned himself with the performers instead.

Later I forgave him when someone pointed out that the magician had been left hanging and Buster (sort of) saved the day. But I still think he missed the point. Making the show run involves its own kind of magic. If you can understand that we’re all on the same team, trying to create an experience, you can see that the performer/staff distinction isn’t that meaningful. We’re all trying to make it appear effortless; we’re the duck feet churning furiously below the surface of the water as the duck glides smoothly by.

Just because you might not wear the lashes, doesn’t mean it’s not important to fetch them.

Why does this matter? For starters there’s the practical audience engagement thing—I think we forget that people’s desire for arts experiences can take different forms, and performing arts organizations would do well to remember that fans can get a lot out of being involved in a show beyond merely as spectators; volunteer opportunities can foster a long-term sense of affiliation and loyalty.

“Okay,” you ask, not unintelligently, “but when you start out as an audience member, doesn’t getting involved that way in the smoke and mirrors detract from the magic?” I don’t think so. If you know what goes into a performance but still find yourself transported, then the show that you’re watching is doing something special. It’s like a mature love affair: you know the person too well to maintain the romantic mystery of your early days, but your heart still skips a beat when you see him.

You gain a real satisfaction in being a useful part of something bigger than yourself. And there is something important about taking pride in contributing to a work you care about, even if —especially if —you’re not the star. Our culture glorifies stardom, far beyond, say, just doing an excellent job at folding T-shirts, but we need more than just the players to make the magic happen. We need people who care about the process, and getting involved in the process makes people care more about the art.

–Ellia Bisker