Volunteer handling

4 12 2010

There is a real art to the use of volunteers in a show- do it right and an average show will become something special, do it wrong and you spoil everything. This article looks at some of the issues involved in the use of volunteers.

Send them back a hero. Before we discuss anything else the golden rule of using volunteers is to “send them back a hero”. Whatever has happened on stage as your volunteer leaves to rejoin the audience they must leave with a huge smile on their face and feeling ten feet high. How do you do this? Firstly, they must have succeeded at whatever you wanted them to do, they must never be allowed to fail. Secondly, both you and your audience must thank the volunteer profusely which is normally done with a round of applause. There is nothing in the art of stage craft more likely to turn an audience against you than not treating your volunteers well and sending them back a hero is the most important part of that.

Treat them with respect. Imagine you were having a conversation with someone and you are joined by a third person. You would adjust your body position to include that new person, you would welcome them and introduce them to the person you were talking to, and you would thank them and wish them farewell as they leave. The same goes for a volunteer. Welcome them to the stage, ask their name, introduce them to the audience, don’t block them from the audience, don’t talk or move behind their back (this is what is called “upstaging” in the theatre and it is very bad form), thank them for their efforts and wish them well as they leave.

How to choose a volunteer. Let your audience know that you will need volunteers, let them know why you need them and let them know how they can get picked. Tell the audience that, if they are picked, nothing dangerous or embarrassing will happen to them, that they will be treated respectfully. Look at your audience carefully as you are asking for volunteers. Make extended eye contact with potential volunteers. If they keep your eye contact they are more likely to be confident and willing to take part, shy people will often break your gaze and you will know not to pick them. If you think picking volunteers might be difficult (and sometimes it is with adolescent age children) either don’t pick volunteers at all or ask people quietly before the show if they will come out. Even if they don’t want to do it they will point out the perfect person for you to go and ask. Try to avoid the situation where you ask for a volunteer and everyone looks at their feet.

Get a good mix. Make sure you cover all the parts of the room. If you need 5 volunteers then imagine the dots of a dice. Two from the front, two from the back and one in the middle. Make sure you include girls and boys, children and adults, people of all appearances and across the age range.

Think of suitability. Don’t give a 15 year old boy a balloon dog and don’t ask a 4 year old to hold a match. Look at what they are wearing and avoid asking someone in high heels to run or someone in a short skirt to lay down. If your volunteer is going to prove how difficult to pull something apart then pick someone that looks strong. To choose someone who looks a bit weedy would be to risk mocking them. If part of your show is important enough to get a volunteer out to do it then it is important for you to take a few minutes to think who would be the best person type of person to do it.

Picking teachers or parents. Ask yourself why are you doing it. If you need someone to hold a candle and the children are all too young then go for the adult. But don’t just pick an adult out to embarrass or mock them. They should be respected just as much if not more than the child volunteers.

Send them back a hero. This one is so important it is worth repeating it. It doesn’t matter what has happened on stage and sometimes things don’t go right when using volunteers but that person must go back to their seat feeling great about themselves and what they have just done.

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