I am always looking out for new experiences, wherever I may find myself.
Published September 2nd 2012
When I signed up to volunteer at the 2012 Sydney Writers' Festival I had never attended the event before. That isn't to say I hadn't wanted to; for years I'd intended to go, but never actually made it due to university commitments and other obstacles. Determined that I wouldn't miss out again, this year I decided volunteering would be a good way to finally get me there and once that was achieved I would see everything I could in the hours I wasn't working.
My experience began with an orientation session (committing to this day is a prerequisite for becoming a volunteer). First the group of volunteers was registered and then we were all introduced to the important people who help bring the festival together and told where we would fit in. We received our volunteer t-shirts (a bright, bright orange that would certainly make us stand out!), as well as a booklet of important information such as our position descriptions and a lanyard with our identification card and the contact details of the people we had just met. Our bag of goodies also included a number of items donated by sponsors of the festival, such as two books from attending authors, a notebook, a pen, a book bag and vouchers.
Following these formalities, everyone was taken on a tour around the Walsh Bay precinct, which serves as the main base of the Sydney Writers' Festival each year. Because I had never even been to the event before, at first I felt like there was too much to take in. I was told where the toilets would be, where to direct people with bikes, how tickets should be purchased on the day, the locations of all the theatres, the different queuing systems... and the list goes on.
However, despite this daunting start, when I began my first shift the actual volunteering turned out to be far less difficult than I expected (and far more fun). During the festival, each volunteer is assigned to a specific area, with each of these having a volunteer supervisor who goes over the specifics of your role before you start. There is actually no need to remember the details of the entire precinct (though you will probably pick up on it all anyway) and your job can be as simple as standing outside a building and directing people to the appropriate door. I was a Front of House volunteer, which meant I was responsible for ushering people to seats, taking ticket stubs, directing people to the events, answering questions and fetching authors from the Green Room.
There are a few separate areas at Walsh Bay that volunteers are be assigned to and even if most roles are nominally the same, I found my experience was vastly different depending on my location. For example, working on Pier 3/4 in the morning was freezing (fortunately I had been warned and dressed appropriately, while my supervisor was very understanding and relieved me every now and then, so I could go stand in the sun). The crowds here are much smaller than over on Pier 2/3 too, where most of the popular events are held and multiple large queues form an hour before the events start (though when I worked there, I found the extra volunteers assigned there made it easier to handle than I had expected).
My experience, no matter where I was, turned out to be a lot of fun. The volunteers and supervisors were all very friendly and easy to get along with. The public was just as pleasant (as were the kids I looked after on Children's Day). A lot of the people who attend the festival tend to be students and retirees. And as it turned out, I didn't need to wait till my hours off to see the events. While volunteers are often warned that we shouldn't expect to see the events we look after (though supervisors try to get volunteers into as many as possible) I was lucky enough to watch quite a lot. I stood on the door of the ABC broadcasts and listened to the interviews, I waited inside other events with my microphone ready to take around the audience during question time, and when I was responsible for an event in quite an out of the way location, I was able to slip inside and listen since no-one would by coming by again for quite a while.
The most important advice I have for future volunteers is to keep your event guide on you at all times and when you have a few moments free, scan the names, locations and times of the upcoming events, as you will be asked for this information repeatedly. However, my experience, though varied, was unique to the Front of House position I filled on each shift. There are many other roles that volunteers take on, including Information Booth assistant, research assistant, greeter, Green Room assistant, media room assistant or floater. There are also opportunities prior to the event, such as packing the volunteer bags. For information on each download the information pack.
The Sydney Writers' Festival is held in May each year, but applications for volunteers are taken much earlier. If you are interested in joining the team, I recommend you sign up to the festival's enews, which will alert you when applications open. When you apply, you will be able to nominate your preferred times and choose between one or more shifts (each is four and a half hours long). Double shifts are possible and in these cases you will get a meal voucher to keep you going. It is something that I definitely recommend doing and I'm not the only one; so many people seem to come back year after year.