What's a Local Supporter of the Theater to Do?:

The Value and Necessity of Volunteerism

Date October 10, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Author Jeffrey Laing

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Performing Arts

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It is an axiom frequently acknowledged and bemoaned that very few people make a financial killing, or even much of a living, working in the theater.  Whether in the creative or production areas, theater people, when asked about their persistence in such a non-lucrative profession, are often reduced to the cliché that they continue to ply their art as “a labor of love” that they are compelled to pursue.  A successful dancer in the chorus of the 2008 audition film Every Little Step (a film of the actual auditions for the 2007 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line which possesses the national anthem for all struggling artists—“What I Did for Love”) is emblematic of all such driven artists when she reveals that the greatest joy of making her first appearance on the Great White Way is that she’ll be able to dance for another year.  Yet the show would not go on, at least in the non-profit world of theater, without the anonymous and often under-acknowledged work of the volunteer.

I

Always, but certainly in the current atmosphere of reduced corporate and public funding, volunteers are the life blood of non-profit theaters.  Connie Schaekel, Community Relations Manager of The Lensic, states that “We couldn’t open our doors without our ambassadors (The Lensic’s designation of their volunteer corps) who are a very important part [of our operation].”  Argos MacCallum, Artistic Director of Teatro Paraguas, argues that volunteers are a “primal need” of local theater companies:  “Without volunteers, most theater in Santa Fe would never happen.  There is no way to pay for all the hours that go into a single production.”  Rebecca Morgan, Managing Director of the Santa Fe Playhouse (SFP), concurs, arguing that “sweat equity” is one of the most valued assets at the SFP:  “Actors, board members, ticket takers, and crew give of their time, talent, and their ‘sweat’ to make our season possible.  Their generous ‘in-kind’ donation is worth real money to SFP, because if we were forced to pay for these services, we would be out of business in no time.”

Along with the necessity of volunteers to keep tickets reasonably priced, the inclusion of the talents and skills of the larger community allows theater companies to both better know their audiences and to take on more complex and, perhaps more challenging, theatrical fare.  Kate Kita, Managing Director of Theater Grottesco, argues for volunteers as an “invaluable asset” for theater companies, especially in the non-profit sector.  “Bringing in volunteers truly expands the community of the theater.  It embraces the creativity, the opinions, and the input of individuals who wish to share their talents and time.  Theater companies often function with smaller-than-ideal budgets and struggle with the challenge that each production’s success is usually unknown, and volunteers and unpaid staff allow theater companies to take artistic risks and stretch their budgets even further.”

David Olson, Artistic Director of Theaterwork, speaks articulately on the multiplicity and value of the tasks volunteers perform: “The theater is a collaborative art form that needs the many skills that people have.  Theater relies on a ‘we.’  It isn’t only about writers, directors, actors, and designers.  It is also about people who can paint, sew, fashion a hat, do research, find objects, and all the rest.  Volunteers also do things like usher and manage the box office.  They set the tone for people who arrive at a production while being welcoming, helpful…a bit elegant….[Furthermore,] volunteers literally bring the community through the door with all their experience, insights, inquisitiveness, energy, questions, and connections.  It’s a way of being ‘in community’ and understanding who that community is….[Finally,] volunteer work makes it possible to expand the scope of projects and to take on large as well as small pieces.”

Local organizations value their volunteers and show their appreciation in various ways.  Pat McKeown, past Vice President of Education of the Santa Fe Opera Guild and current chair of the highly successful “Opera 101” classes sponsored by the Guild, is constantly working on keeping the volunteers and energy up; one such attempt to honor volunteers is an end-of-the-season recognition dinner.  Likewise, Connie Schaekel is always asking the question: “Are we thanking them [Lensic volunteers] enough?”  The organization provides meals and other small perks to their ambassadors.  (The Lensic must be doing something correctly:  The organization has 135-140 volunteers with a waiting list.  It has also retained 30% to 40% of its volunteers from the original volunteer class of ten years ago when the Lensic reopened.)

Kate Kita suggests that there is another type of positive reinforcement a volunteer may experience by contributing their time and talents: “The hope is that volunteers will both enjoy participating in the artistic and administrative processes and experience a great payoff when they witness the magic that they helped to create and put on the stage.”  Whatever the payoff might be, Kate Kita’s assertion that “Volunteers help theater companies survive” could serve as a mantra for all local arts groups as could Rebecca Morgan’s enthusiastic appreciation for the Playhouse volunteers: “We would like to say THANKS! to every valuable volunteer who has helped SFP for the last 89 years!”

II

My search for an individual who would serve as the emblematic volunteer was a brief one.  Friend and fellow theater enthusiast David Rile has made a major impact on a number of local arts groups in the five years since he has returned to Northern New Mexico (David was born and raised in Los Alamos).

David Rile was a theater lover from an early age “I saw my first Santa Fe Opera production, Rossini’s Cinderella, as a child, and ever since I have [embraced] the energy I feel at a live performance.”   Referring to himself as a “background person,” David, nonetheless, has had experience performing.  At Los Alamos High School, he was a member of the Olions Dramatic Society, played bassoon in the school orchestra, and sang in the choir as he did when he attended Arizona State University.  After graduation from college, David relocated to Denver where he played recorder and performed with an Early Renaissance and Baroque music group.  After living for eight years in San Francisco where he served as a peer counselor in the much-admired Shanti Project, he moved to New York for sixteen years where he made his living as production editor for Fortune Magazine, focusing on that publication’s famed “Lists,” including “The Fortune 500,” “The International Fortune 500,” “100 Best Companies,” “100 fastest-Growing Companies,” and the like.  David also created and maintained the publication’s templates and served in quality control.  After his Big Apple tenure, David returned to New Mexico, relocating in Santa Fe:  “I found New York City too overwhelming.  [I also realized] that my closest friends have always lived here.  I also find Northern New Mexico to be the most beautiful place on earth.  Having made new friends here, I can’t imagine living any place else.”

David has become a vocal promoter of local theater.  His observation on the often unacknowledged quality of Santa Fe is encapsulated in a terse comparison:  “In five years I have not felt compelled to walk out of any Santa Fe performance, but I had walked out of four Broadway shows in the last two years that I was living in New York.”  He signaled out for special accolades Ironweed Production’s Scott Harrison (for his acting and directing in Sam Sheppard’s True West) and Joey Chavez (for his writing of 23 Flights Home).

III

Not only does he contribute cash gifts to many local arts groups, but David organizes groups of friends to attend plays and concerts which are much appreciated by the development and community relations people in town.  However, it is David’s contribution of his time, energy, and intelligence as a volunteer that is truly impressive.

David comes by his community involvement genetically:  “My father was very active in the Los Alamos community, working with the Lions, VFW, American Legion, and the Los Alamos Fair & Rodeo Board  He also served as County Fire Marshall and provided safety classes for local community organizations.”

The Santa Fe Opera claims much of David’s time and energy.  He serves as a docent for tours of SFO and loves learning more about the organization “that has been part of my life since I was eight years of age”:  “I reworked/edited the docent manual in response to questions that arose from patrons of the tours.  For example, the SFO occupies 12.5 acres of the 166 acres that comprise the entire opera holdings.”  David also finds the size and singularity of the SFO operation to be impressive:  “Kyle Gray is a very talented volunteer coordinator who oversees 1,300 people who volunteer in almost every department of SFO, including the costume and scene shops.  I also like to mention that SFO is one of the few self-contained theaters in the United States [with all aspects of the operation located here on the campus.]”

David Rile is also a board member of the Santa Fe Opera Guild, the editor of the organization’s newsletter “Operagram,” and an education committee member   His colleague and fellow education committee member Pat McKeown finds it a “pleasure to work with David.  There is not a harder worker in the group and he is fun and reliable.  He was very instrumental in the success of the ‘Opera 101’ program.”  David is also a board member of Pro Musica and serves as house manager for that organization’s youth concerts.  He shows up early, manages the ushers, and deals with any problems.  He acts as a troubleshooter and is responsible for everything that happens between the 800 students’ arrival and departure.  He also manages to find time to usher for some of Pro Musica’s evening concerts.

David also serves as a paid house manager with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale.  His responsibilities are the same as those at Pro Musica with the additional task of being a liaison with the various groups and artists. Furthermore, as the Chorale has no permanent home venue, he is responsible for setting up the entire theater, securing and scheduling all the ushers, and overseeing all aspects of a performance except for the box office.

For The Lensic, David is one of the ambassadors who frequently serves as a ticket-taker but fills in any position that he is needed.  He enjoys the interaction with the patrons and admires Bob Martin who “has made the Lensic a venue for all of Santa Fe” and has helped to undercut the false premise that the arts in Santa Fe are elitist.  Connie Schaekel of the Lensic finds that David is “reliable, professional, and articulate; he is attuned to the small details of what patrons need, including the placement of trash cans in the lobby.”  Connie further praises David not only for his generous donation of his time but also for his monetary donations for specific projects that directly benefit his fellow ushers, for example, a hot water dispenser:  “We are currently working to improve seating for our ambassadors at sold-out performances.”

David also leads 90-minute “Outside Walking Tours” of Downtown Santa Fe’s history, art, and architecture for the Museum of New Mexico, including the Plaza area, the old Fort Marcy location (Palace Avenue to the Park), the Lensic Theater, and the First Presbyterian Church (the oldest Protestant church in New Mexico).  Finally, David volunteers for special ad hoc occasions, such as manning the information booth for the 400th anniversary celebration of Santa Fe and the National Geographic giant map program in the elementary schools.

IV

In response to my question of how one who is contemplating volunteering should go about doing so, David provided his own process:  “Look at your talents.  Then find an organization that you admire and/or needs your help.  There is a wealth of opportunities to volunteer in Santa Fe.  (David is currently thinking of replacing some of his arts work with helping people in need at organizations such as Kitchen Angels.)  Then contact the organization and see if you can help. [Finally,] flexibility is the key to being a successful volunteer.  You must be open to others’ ideas.”  David also reveals that the payoff is “incredible”:  “I promise you that you’ll get more than you give.”  The only caveat David offers to potential volunteers is “to know your limits.  I realize that I need to learn to say no.”

The thread that ties all of David’s efforts together is education:  “I received my first introduction to and appreciation of the arts from school.  I try to help replace what’s been taken out of the schools. I want to bring the younger generation into the theater and to expose them to the arts.  I want to help fulfill their needs as was done for me.  Growing up, it was not unusual to see a twenty-year old at a classical concert [as it is today.]  I want to de-elitize the arts, make them inclusive and accessible and help build new audiences.”

David Rile offers a warning to local devotees of live performance:  “I am afraid that we’ll lose the arts if they become too expensive.  Volunteers help keep ticket prices affordable.  The only nationally priced ticket we have in Santa Fe is for the opera.  The other arts are actually a good deal.”

The arts need our dollars, our patronage, and our time and talents.  The societal benefits are incalculable.  As that under-appreciated artist Edgar Allan Poe once posited “art is nourishment of the soul.”  And who can put a price on that?

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