Welcome to the official Hamilton Players blog: All the world's a stage...

Thoughts and ruminations on all things theater...and then some!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

This is community theater...part 1

In 2012 the British Museum had a book on display that rivaled the Gutenberg Bible for media attention.  The book was not particularly old, it wasn’t a rare text, it wasn’t a clean text; it had scribbles in the margins and was obviously well used.  It had been owned by Nelson Mandela. but more than that, it had been owned by Nelson Mandela in prison and for years this so-called "Robben Island Bible" sustained and inspired him..  He often read aloud from it to his cellmates and it inspired and sustained them all. The book? Not scripture, but sacred nonetheless.  It was the Collected Works of William Shakespeare.  Those characters, those stories…they sustained him and others through those dark years in prison.  That, my friends, is the power and magic of theater.

Hamilton Players’ mission is to put the spotlight on education, inspiration, and community through the performing arts.  But even more important than our mission, is “why” behind it.  What drives us, as an organization, is a belief that live theater has the power to change individuals, both those who participate in it, and those who view it.  Performing on stage is a life-changing event–you can never be the same, afterward, when you’ve worn another person’s life in front of an audience. Each time, you become a little more open-minded, a little more understanding, a little better parent, a little better neighbor.  Just a little better.

Over the years Hamilton Players has staged more than 100 major productions, everything from classic Shakespeare to a drama about the effects of 9/11; from big musicals with upwards of 50 performers, to intimate 1- and 2-person shows.  In the course of a typical year, easily 5,000 people--and sometimes as many as 7,000--will attend or participate in our productions and events. Imagine that: 7,000 opportunities for our community to become just a little better.  That’s the power and magic of theater.

Hamilton Players has a large and growing number of all-purpose volunteers of all ages; an extraordinary corps of performers, directors, musicians, dancers, costume builders, designers, helpers, advisers, and artists.  All of them participating because they have each, on their own, decided that this is the most valuable thing they can do with their time, the most important thing they can do for their community.  Not everybody enjoys being out in front of an audience, but nearly everyone enjoys the feeling of having contributed to something larger than themselves, and a Hamilton Players production offers just that.  Beginning with nothing more than words on a page, everyone - from the director right on down to the person who checks to make sure there’s toilet paper in the bathrooms - begins working together to create the transforming experience that the audience has. Inspiration. Teamwork. Community.  That’s the power and magic of theater.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The volunteer conundrum

I don't know how it works at other nonprofit community theaters, but here at Hamilton Players we have only a tiny paid staff:  Executive Director (FTE), 2 box office interns (>.5 FTE), a house keeper (.25 FTE) and a handful of transient or "seasonal"  artistic staff that come and go; tied to a specific show.  Everything else is staffed by volunteers...which is amazing...and also difficult.

For years our organization has had a paradigm of very loose leadership for volunteers; if you want to volunteer, great!  Have at it! That worked well when Hamilton Players was a loose collective that came together to put on a show and then disperse.  But once the Players had a formal venue that required constant attention and upkeep, and expanded the programming to more than two isolated shows per year, AND became a corporation and nonprofit; the volunteer needs increased substantially and more often than not, the old-school "Have at it!" concept led to dissatisfaction for both Hamilton Players and the volunteer.  Projects would get started by one and then finished by another; leaving both frustrated and dissatisfied.  Information, or rather; misinformation, was passed along according to each individual's varying understanding of the situation.  The administrative learning curve for nonprofit and corporate legal requirements was steep and suddenly there were a lot more volunteers to keep informed and many of them were disgruntled to find that the way they had been doing things was no longer acceptable to the organization. Plus there was the added pressure of satisfying insurance requirements or face constantly increasing premiums. This led to a huge turnover in volunteers, a variety of unsafe practices, and a widely varying quality of experience for volunteers, patrons, and donors.  Dissatisfaction led to reduced volunteerism which in turn led to more work and responsibility being heaped upon volunteers, which led to more dissatisfaction and reduced volunteerism.  It was a slow, deepening spiral of negativity that was impacting the organization on all levels.

Fast forward to today.  2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the Hamilton Playhouse, Hamilton Players home venue.  It also marked the start of a newly reorganized volunteer committee with a commitment to growth and excellence.  By "growth" I refer to volunteer recruitment and by "excellence" I refer to both the experience to and from the volunteer.  Hamilton Players has made some mistakes in the past, but we are working hard to create an environment where volunteers are integrated into the day to day culture of the organization, given responsibility and autonomy, and are appreciated and rewarded.  We want volunteers to become a part of the fundamental structure of the Playhouse day-to-day activities. In the name of transparency, volunteers need to know that there will be some training up-front.  Policies and expectations will be clearly outlined as will the structure and processes of the organization.  Depending upon the position, there will also be periodic evaluations to help keep expectations - on both sides - in alignment. Sure, there are rules, but within that framework real magic can happen.  Change cannot happen overnight, but Hamilton Players is making a dedicated commitment to develop an organizational culture that is open and appreciative and values dedication, creativity, collaboration, and accountability - both from employees and volunteers. 

Hamilton Players invites you to become a part of the theater family. See what's new and bring your own special talents and strengths to work with us at the Playhouse!  We look forward to seeing you soon!