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Volunteers: vital to Canadian arts

When most people attend a performance of some kind, their attention is naturally focused on the performers–the people on stage singing or dancing or acting or reading from their novel or poetry collection.

And that’s all well and good–those people worked hard to get there–but there’s another group of people that work just as hard behind the scenes for almost any type of performance you can name: volunteers.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of volunteers to the arts for some time. Maybe it’s because this year I’ve been serving on two boards of directors for two different arts organizations: the Regina Lyric Light Opera Society and the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. And as we discuss the business of these organizations and make decisions that affect their future, I look around the room and am struck each meeting anew with the realization that all these people are volunteers.

“Volunteer. Noun. Obsolete French voluntaire (now volontaire), from voluntaire, adjective, voluntary, from Latin voluntarius. Circa 1618. 1. A person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service.”

That’s the dictionary definition. At its heart is the term voluntary, one of whose definitions is “acting or done of one’s own free will without valuable consideration or legal obligation.”

“Without valuable consideration or legal obligation.” In other words, people who work on a voluntary basis in the arts do so not because they’re being paid, or because they’re legally required to do so–no one’s going to throw them in jail if they don’t–but because it’s their choice. They want to.

And without them, community arts organizations wouldn’t exist, and professional arts organizations would struggle.

Take Globe Theatre. When you go to a Globe production, you’re greeted by volunteers who take your tickets and hand you programs and check your coat. Globe’s board of directors, too, are all volunteers.

Regina Symphony Orchestra? The Symphony Women’s Association is a volunteer group that has been raising funds for the symphony and providing an after-concert coffee social for years.

Saskatchewan Writers Guild? Volunteers work on its board of directors and many of its various committees.

Those are professional organizations. Community arts organizations depend entirely on volunteers. Community theatre groups like Regina Little Theatre, Regina Lyric Light Opera and Regina Summer Stage wouldn’t exist without volunteers, because all their performers volunteer their talents, as do most of their backstage personnel. When you look through all the names listed in the program for a community theatre organization, you’re seeing an enormous list of volunteers. There are people who volunteer to sew costumes, to sell cookies at intermission, to paint sets and gather props; people who volunteer to run spotlights and sell tickets and design posters and programs; people who volunteer to write newsletters and news releases and apply makeup to actors.

Volunteers can accomplish amazing things. Consider the recent Saskatchewan Community Theatre Inc. provincial drama festival hosted by Regina Little Theatre. As I described in my April 5 column, seven community theatre groups from across Saskatchewan presented their plays over seven days. Volunteers organized every aspect of the event. Every performer was a volunteer. Every director was a volunteer. Every stage manager was a volunteer. Even the person who drove the adjudicator–well-known Canadian playwright Allan Stratton–around was a volunteer.

A week-long drama festival is a major undertaking for any arts organization. The SCTI festival went off without a hitch, and presented seven excellent plays over seven nights to large and enthusiastic audiences. And they did it all with volunteers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad there are people who work professionally in the arts and I think it’s important that there be incentives and aid made available to enable people to work professionally in the arts. I’m glad the government announced a boost in arts spending a couple of weeks.

But the fact remains, the real heart and soul of cultural organizations across this province and country lies in the volunteers, the people who get involved not because they’re paid, or even receive a government grant, but because they want to help build a vibrant, local Canadian culture.

Think about their role the next time you attend a play or visit an art gallery or go to a concert. And then think about your own role.

Somewhere close by there’s an arts organization that can use your help.

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