Volunteers make community theater happenby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Putting on a play involves a lot more people than just the actors on stage. That's especially true with community theater, where volunteers are the life blood of every production. In turn, community theaters provide opportunities to build valuable skills in a casual setting.
White Bear Lake, Minn. — Lakeshore Players Theater is housed in what used to be a church. There are now theater seats where the pews used to be, and the actors perform not far from where a priest would have given his sermon.
The nature of this church-turned-theater leaves no additional room for building sets, so Technical Designer Alden Peterson's scene shop is wedged just behind the stage.
"These marks here on the floor are where the baptismal fountain was," points out Peterson. "So this back here would have been probably where the cross was, and whatever baptismal thing and maybe pipes for the organ. I'm not really sure."
Peterson builds his sets right on stage, laying sheets out over the audience seats so he can lay out and organize planks of wood. And throughout the build, volunteers come to help him out whenever they can.
Lakeshore Players managing director Joan Elwell is the theater's only full-time employee. She says when you can only afford to pay a very small part-time staff, you end up recruiting and working with dozens of volunteers.
"We have a lot of people who come in and who help out, just for love of the theater," says Elwell. "We have a gentleman who helps with the set-building. He was the tech director years ago and so he comes back and helps out. We have all volunteer ushers, and usher coordinators who line those people up and they're wonderful. That's a huge job in and of itself."
Volunteer J.P. Barone is currently playing not one, but three essential roles at the theater. He's a Lakeshore board member. For Lakeshore's production of "Harvey," he plays the part of Judge Gaffney. And he's co-producing the show.
By day, Barone is an assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota. He laughs as he dismisses any concerns about a potential ethical conflict.
"The conflict of interest might exist if it weren't for the fact that I get paid nothing for any of those roles," says Barone. "They all cost me money out of my own pocket as I volunteer to do this. I figure as long as I'm losing money on the deal, we're pretty well set."
Barone doesn't seem to mind the investment. Nor does he think it's a big deal that he often spends close to 20 hours a week of his free time at Lakeshore Players.
"We all volunteer in the community to enrich the community. It's what we do aside from earning a living," says Barone. "This is what I do because it interests me most. Other people do other things. My father umpired softball," Barone laughs. "I don't know the rules for softball!"
Then there are those people who fall under the category of both employee and volunteer. Brigitta Heaney is Lakeshore Players resident costumer. She's worked with the theater company for 37 years.
While Heaney is a contract employee, both she and her boss admit that she works far more hours than what shows up on her paycheck. Heaney is 74, and Lakeshore Players provides her with an outlet for her lifelong passion of designing costumes.
"I have to know about the social status of a character," says Heaney. "You don't put a grandiose costume on a poor character in the play -- you have to dress according to social status. I have a lot of literature, books with pictures. And then of course it all depends on the body I get; some bodies aren't so easy to dress. But I shouldn't complain about that, usually I get pretty good bodies."
Bill Muchow, president of the American Association of Community Theaters, says community theaters like Lakeshore Players are providing people important opportunities to develop skills in a comfortable setting. Skills such as building, painting, and lighting.
"Plus," says Muchow, "it is a good place for people to learn how to be board members."
But Muchow wonders if community theaters will always have access to volunteers as they have in the past.
"People are very busy these days," says Muchow, "and volunteer time is at a premium. So that one of the things you have to be very careful of is how you manage your volunteers' time."
Muchow says community theaters depend on their volunteers, and the fewer volunteers who participate, the less a theater can do.