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A huge cast of volunteers makes the show go on

Editor's note: This is the 24th and final Ashland Runs on Volunteers columns penned for the Tidings since November 2014 by Mary Coombs. The Tidings thanks her for gathering and sharing information about the individuals who give their time and talents to local groups, enhancing the quality of life and sense of community we enjoy here.

Just as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, draw for tourists coming to Ashland, it is almost surely the biggest draw for local people who volunteer. Last year, there were 707 volunteers, who donated a total of 33,785 hours.

What do all these volunteers do? One of the largest groups consists of those who work — together with paid staff — in what are called audience services: ushers (who guide you to your seats), ticket takers and those who staff the access booths (providing hearing assistant devices to patrons who need them). They all need to carry out specific tasks, to be good ambassadors for the Festival as they interact with patrons, and to remain on their feet while they work.

Depending on the specific job, the volunteer may need to come to the theatre 1 to 1½ hours before the doors open and may be able to leave when the show starts or at the end of the first intermission. The theatre provides aprons, ties and/or vests. The volunteers dress in white shirts and black slacks or skirts. You may have seen a group going to/from the theater: I’ve come to call us (since I have been an access booth volunteer) “penguins.”

Volunteers for OSF also carry out a wide range of other tasks. Some work in the Costume Shop, helping the professional staff by hemming, sewing on buttons or gluing “jewels” to costumes. Some staff the Welcome Center; these are people with a deep knowledge of OSF, its history and the town. Others staff the Green Show Information Table on the bricks before and at the start of the Green Shows or act as Bricks Ambassadors, roaming the bricks in red aprons, guiding patrons and providing information about the various events that OSF sponsors. Some help the box office — a good job for a volunteer like me, who prefers working sitting down and who is really careful at alphabetizing things! Drivers pick up and deliver visiting directors or designers to/from the airport while others put welcome baskets in the OSF company housing when such visitors are staying there.

There are also a number of time-specific events that use volunteer help: staffing the lounge and information booth at CultureFest, soliciting donations and selling T-shirts at Daedalus, and working with staff to “strike the sets” at the end of the season.

Sometimes a “one-off” arises where volunteers may be asked to help. Last season volunteers helped separate the petals for "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" and attached the roses to the lines for the set of "Much Ado about Nothing." At the opening night of "Head Over Heels," volunteers handed out chocolates to patrons as they arrived. Several years ago, when there was a dog in the cast of one of the shows, a volunteer took on the task of walking the dog between its appearances in different acts.

Still others volunteer in ways that support the Festival through affiliate groups. These are formally separate, but those who volunteer for them are also able to access the benefits described below. Probably the best known of these is the Tudor Guild, which runs the gift shop on East Main as well as kiosks inside the theaters.

Under the aegis of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, volunteers staff a kiosk on the plaza downtown during a season that largely overlaps that of OSF and the heavy tourist season. Members of the Soroptomist Club staff the booth within the Allen Elizabethan Theatre from which their volunteers rent pillows and blankets (very valuable for those of us who haven’t quite internalized how cold it can get by 10 at night in Ashland in July!!) Members of the Ashland Garden Club create flower arrangements from the bounty of their gardens to decorate the tables at the Feast of Will, celebrating the opening of the Elizabethan each year.

I’ve listed a lot of different tasks. Some volunteers do one thing; others can be found in a number of roles over the course of a season. Regardless, most of them (or,more precisely, most of us) like being part of the OSF community. Like season patrons (and many volunteers are also patrons), they are enthusiastic about — and ambassadors for — the Festival.

The volunteers enjoy what they do, and the camaraderie with other volunteers and paid staff. They like knowing that they help OSF put on its incredible shows. But they also get some amazing benefits. There are special programs for volunteers to introduce them to the season or particular shows. There is a party near the end of the season called “Love’s Labors,” where OSF provides drinks and munchies. (Sometimes it feels like all 700 volunteers are crowded into the Bowmer lobby!) Then members of the OSF company volunteer to thank the volunteers by putting on a show for us.

Last year 632 of the volunteers put in at least 30 hours over the season, which qualified them for the chance to request up to 11 free tickets.

Many, of course go way above-and-beyond the minimum. Last year Nancy Kramerenko and Larraine Anderson each put in more than 250 hours at the Tudor Guild; Jean Linington did almost as much at the access booths.

I learned about all this and still more volunteer activities when I interviewed Volunteer Coordinator Pam Thomas. As you might imagine, hers is a job that requires at the highest level the skills of organizing to ensure that all these tasks get done, matching the right person to the right job, while ensuring that all the volunteers feel appreciated and that no balls are dropped in this enormous juggling act.

Ordinarily, I have ended these stories by directing people where they might go if they want to volunteer. While there are lots of tasks that OSF volunteers carry out, the 700-plus existing volunteers, who are largely loyal, “return customers,” do a great job of doing them. If you do want to join in, two of the affiliate organizations provide the best opportunities to do so. You can learn more about Tudor Guild at www.tudorguild.org (see volunteer opportunities in the left hand column of the web page) and about the Chamber of Commerce at www.ashlandchamber.com.

Mary I. Coombs’ column on local nonprofit organizations appeared every three weeks. Email questions and suggestions to betling@dailytidings.com.

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