May the Volunteer Force Be With You

Thirty years ago, Tom Dyer let a girlfriend drag him to a play at the Metro Theatre. Since then, he hasn’t missed a single show.

Longtime volunteer Tom Dyer serves drinks behind the bar at the Metro Theatre.

Thirty years ago, Tom Dyer let a girlfriend drag him to a play at the Metro Theatre. Since then, he hasn’t missed a single show.

On the opening night of Arsenic and Old Lace, Dyer stands behind the bar at the Metro Theatre, arranging highball glasses into neat rows. He peers out into the lounge, a ruby of a red velvet room where a few patrons are sipping red wine before the show. With his trim white beard and his hair combed back into perfect rows, Dyer has the air of a gentleman in one of the theatre’s classic plays. He nods to a fellow volunteer before bending down to stock the small bar fridge with bottles of beer.

Dyer is one of the long-time volunteers who, season after season, have helped the Metropolitan Cooperative Theatre Society produce its ambitious line-up of vintage English and American plays. From the stage manager to the box office attendant, a cast of behind-the-scenes players is crucial to every Metro production. Without them, the show could not go on.

Lately, however, board members are becoming concerned about the theatre’s dwindling volunteer force. With some of the most committed supporters advancing in age, the productions could crumple in the near future without the addition of new volunteer bodies.

Metro Theatre’s publicist Cheryl Hutcherson explains why, historically, volunteer jobs have rested on the shoulders of a committed few. “Those who’ve been around forever and a day feel ownership to what they’re doing,” she says.

Elderly or not, almost all of the volunteers at Metro have a long history with the theatre and have played multiple supporting roles. Katrina Harris, who mans the lobby concession wearing a green dress and Converse sneakers, has volunteered with the theatre since she was seven years old. Her sparkly royal-blue eyeshadow matches that of her mother, Celeste Cerise, who stands ten feet away ripping tickets at the door. The mother-daughter pair first came to the theatre for the Christmas pantomime. Since then, they have been jack-of-all-trades volunteers for the theatre.

Hutcherson says newer recruits, on the other hand, want to volunteer on their own terms. In her experience, newcomers often give their time for a short spell in order to gain experience and build their résumés. She says the newer volunteers think, “ ‘If I’m going to volunteer at Metro for this show, that’s great but I’m going to go on to the Fringe next. ”

Hutcherson attributes volunteers’ predilection for organization-hopping to a bigger shift in the workforce. “You are trained to have a skill, and you know you’re going to go from job to job to job,” she says of today’s employees. “Companies also realize that, so they’re going to put out contracts, they’re going to let people go and hire others. There’s no more of that loyalty to the company or the company loyalty to the employee... well, that shuffles down to the volunteer level, too.”

She adds that, while such volunteers gain a range of experiences, organizations that rely on them can become insecure about the stability of their volunteer force. “How do you sustain yourself knowing that they’re coming and going?” she asks.

In the printed program of Arsenic and Old Lace, the theatre’s 444th production, a section entitled “Catch the Metro Spirit” entreats audience members to consider lending a hand with properties, costuming, sound, or any other aspect of the theatre’s operation.

Hutcherson says if she could assemble a perfect cast of volunteers, it would include locals both old and young, committed to the organization for the long term.

“Or,” she says with a wry grin, “Do you wait for everyone to drop dead and then start over because you have nobody?”

 

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