For the love of fringe

If it takes a village to raise a child then what does it take to stage the Calgary Fringe Festival? To use another cliché it takes an army — of volunteers that is.

Festival director and producer Michele Gallant says her volunteer database contains 570 names of which she says 30 are “core” volunteers who sign up for their annual Fringe shifts as soon as she sends out the schedule in April.

Gallant says the Fringe needs between 60 and 70 volunteers per day to sell tickets answer questions at the information booth usher patrons to their seats operate the various concessions canvas patrons and oversee the venues.

“I’ve had all my volunteer positions fill up three weeks out” says Gallant adding the volunteer positions are “streamlined” to make sure everyone is engaged.

Without those volunteers we probably wouldn’t have had a fringe last year– Ken Woodward Calgary Fringe Festival

So just who are some of these volunteers who make the Calgary Fringe Festival an annual reality?

Retiree Carol Goebel is a three-year Fringe volunteer veteran. “I had retired and you need something when you retire that you enjoy doing” she says adding her favourite volunteer activity involves promoting the Fringe at some of Calgary’s other special events.

“The festivals are the most fun. You get to promote what you feel and love as a Fringe volunteer.”

This year Goebel will volunteer during the festival itself for five out of the nine days. Volunteers are provided with water and snacks and once they’ve put in 20 hours they get a free “all-access” pass to Fringe shows. “They treat you really well” says Goebel.

Shannon McKenty is a longtime Fringe volunteer who started in 2006.

Volunteering at the Calgary Fringe was also a date-night activity for McKenty. “My husband and I met in 2006. We started dating in July and we both volunteered at the Fringe that August” she says. It’s a tradition that continues today.

“We love the people we know a lot of the performers and we know a lot of the patrons. It’s familiar and we like theatre.”

In addition to the regulars Gallant says a number of new volunteers emerge each year. One of those relative “newbies” is Gallant’s own brother Ken Woodward who volunteered for the first time last year and is now president of the Calgary Fringe Festival’s board of directors.

“It wasn’t what I expected at all” says Woodward of his first Fringe experience as a patron in 2012. “I thought it would just be people who were really pushing the creative envelope but there are some totally family-oriented things there” he says adding Chase Padgett’s Nashville Hurricane made him aware of just how good the performers are.

After that experience and with a desire to support his sister Woodward decided to offer himself up as a volunteer.

Some volunteers also offer up their homes during the Fringe Festival to provide accommodation for visiting artists. A billeting co-ordinator matches artists and hosts according to their unique needs and shared proclivities.

Alan Weller has been opening his home to Fringe artists for four years now. “I’m a creative spirit and I like having that energy around” says the Calgary Opera chorus member.

The first person Weller billeted was Bob Wiseman Blue Rodeo’s first keyboard player. “I’m a keyboard player as well and I got a concert just about every morning which was kind of nice” recalls Weller.

He describes volunteering and meeting artists from all over as “a journey for the mind.”

“There’s more than one way to travel” he adds.

Needless to say dealing with an artist’s unique habits can beone of the “challenges” of hosting.

Gallant recounts a story for example of one woman who housed an artist from the U.K. who wandered around her home naked.

Greg MacIvor is looking forward to his billet this year — Montreal’s Jeff Gandell — who is doing a show called The Balding something MacIvor says he can relate to on a personal level.

“The way I look at it is this: I can either spend thousands of dollars on Rogaine or $12 on a Fringe ticket and laugh at it” he says

MacIvor echoes other volunteers when he says he likes the Fringe because of the people he meets there including artists such as Carolann Valentino whose 2012 show Burnt at the Steak explored the humour of working in a high-end New York City steakhouse.

A former chef himself MacIvor says he and Valentino had fun “swapping kitchen stories.”

Gallant says volunteers play an important role year-round as well — working the fundraising casinos promoting the festival at special events serving on the board assisting with marketing initiatives and maintaining the festival’s equipment to ensure it’s ready when needed.

Woodward references the importance of volunteers last year when in the aftermath of June’s floods much of the Fringe equipment needed cleaning and refurbishing.

“We had 15 to 20 people cleaning off stage lights and scaffolding and trying to get sound boards up and running again. Without those volunteers we probably wouldn’t have had a Fringe last year” says Woodward.

In fact without volunteers there probably wouldn’t be a festival any year. “If I didn’t havethe volunteers at the box officeor that volunteer support throughout the year there’s just no way this festival could still fly and do it on a $250000 budget” says Gallant.