The most highly-prized piece of booty one can grab at the Wisconsin Film Festival each year, at least as described by director Meg Hamel, is the official volunteer t-shirt. "No matter how we go about putting it together, it's always the one everyone wants," she says. Those hoping to don this year's t-shirt, though, may be out of luck unless they have already signed up to volunteer for the festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this spring and runs from April 3-6.
Due to an immense response from interested volunteers, fest organizers have closed registration to new volunteers. As noted Monday evening on the event's volunteer form: "We have plenty of people signed up to volunteer for the 2008 Festival. Response was amazing. So, the sign-up form has been taken off the web site. As always though, we welcome back returning volunteers."
Nearly 300 people have signed up to volunteer, in fact, since the form was posted online in late January by volunteer coordinator Jess Main. Over the last couple of years, organizers were seeking volunteers well into the end of March while during a period early in the decade, they were looking for help nearly up to the moment the first movie hit the screen.
"What's changed is that the festival is growing in awareness," says Hamel. "A lot of it has to do with improving the way we train volunteers, in which we require them to attend two orientation and training meetings. Each year you get better at that. We've got the system down so people feel confident they can do a good job. It's a lot of fun."
Two pairs of the mandatory orientation sessions are scheduled for weekends in late February and late March. There volunteers learn about the ins and outs of working at the event, where most of the responsibilities center on running the venues scattered around downtown Madison across the four-day festival. "What volunteering means here is doing all the tasks necessary to ensure that each screening goes off flawlessly," says Hamel. This includes selling tickets, ushering people to seats, introducing films, working with projectionists to start the show on time and oversee sound levels, assisting with Q&A sessions and panel discussions, collecting Audience Award ballots, and answering questions, across multiple screenings in oftentimes crowded theaters.
"Because we now have volunteers that have done so for many years," notes Hamel, "when we put together the shifts we're always able to include experienced volunteers at every venue. So now this experience is building on itself." That's why previous volunteers who haven't signed-up yet are still welcome to contact organizers and get added to the pool of helpers at this anniversary festival.
With numerous volunteers returning regularly to the festival, it's no surprise that those who have tasted that side of the event give their experiences two thumbs up.
"I did about three shifts last year, as did the wife," writes one recent volunteer with the festival. "Got a real kick out of it, great people, met some directors, got a free shirt." He goes on to describe his intention to volunteer every other year, spending the off years watching as many festival offerings as possible. 'So, this year I'll be eagerly awaiting the schedule and planning some vacation time to overdose on international and art cinema," he declares, "but I recommend that if you've got the time free, check out the volunteer opportunities!"
Don't worry, there's always next year.