Saturday, 18 April 2009

Sing For Your Supper

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I'm not advocating that we all take up voice lessons. I'm saying that a nominal bit of work could earn you the price of admission for any number of arts, culture, recreation, and entertainment outings and events.

Sitting at home in front of television or computer is passive entertainment. I much prefer the energy of a shared experience. A recorded laugh track can't compare to hearing the reactions of others sitting around me in a darkened theater; a favorite song performed live in concert carries with it a crowd of memories mere listening to a CD never would; getting up close enough to a painting to see the brushstrokes gives a link to the artist seeing it on the internet never could. But when times require we try to live more frugal lives, art and entertainment expenses are often the first to be cut.

Arts, culture, and recreation are also the first places governments cut when trying to downsize budgets. So even more museums and theater companies are going to be decreasing paid staff in favor of volunteer workers. Instead of sitting at home in front of a glowing screen, it's the perfect time to start looking into volunteer opportunities in your area.

My sister and I like live music, so we've found concert venues that use volunteer ushers. We consider it quality time together, working a concert. Volunteers have to arrive early, so we often enjoy the pleasure of hearing a "private" performance during the band's sound checks and last-minute rehearsals before the doors open to the public. The venues I've worked have volunteers work from when the doors open through the warm-up act and then let us go, to just enjoy ourselves and the show, before the headliners come on. We see the show, with others that might have spent hundreds of dollars for their seats, for free.

While working the big stadium shows might be the only way to see the Rolling Stones (been there, done that, repeatedly), many acts are booked into smaller, and much nicer, venues. Being a volunteer gives you an inside look. Before working shows at the lovingly-restored Art Deco Paramount Theater in Oakland California, volunteers have to take a tour. I love knowing how the huge panels that make up the proscenium arch were created, that there is a pipe organ still in working order below the stage, and about the warren of passageways in the basement. Getting to see concerts there, as varied as Merle Haggard, Melissa Etheridge, Dream Theater, and Neil Young, free, adds icing to the cake!

When I get too old and slow for rock music, I know Reno's philharmonic, ballet, and opera companies also use volunteer ushers. Many performing arts centers are run as non-profit organizations - they're more than happy to get another volunteer. Ask the people already working your favorite events, check out websites, human resource departments, and bulletin boards at local colleges, universities, and coffee houses to find volunteer opportunities in your area. I've signed up to work as a team with my husband for a couple of the performances of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival again this year. We like to work inside the amphitheater as "hosts". It means working before the performance, during intermission, and helping clean up afterwards, but includes a free meal from the gourmet food stalls. Dinner and a show with my husband, under the stars next to the lake - it doesn't even seem like working (the free t-shirt another plus). I need to check out dates for our local Jazz Festival too - that's another event Aries will work with me.

Volunteer opportunities aren't limited to shows, however. One of the biggest summer events in my town is the Taste of Downtown fundraiser for the local domestic violence shelter. Those with tickets get to "taste" at more than 30 local restaurants, but all the additional goings-on - live music in the streets, raffles, special sales - make it a great time to get out and about downtown, seeing people we know. As volunteers for the event, my husband and I will work as ticket-checkers at one of the restaurants for a couple of hours, then get to "taste" free the rest of the time. We love being part of the action, and helping out a good cause - free fun (and another cool t-shirt)! Many non-profit organizations can use extra volunteers working their fundraising events. They'll be glad you called.

If your interests run more towards history, archeology, natural science, or artwork, many museums have volunteer docent programs. Not only could an afternoon a month working in their gift shop provide free admission for your family, it could garner you invitations to exhibit openings and holiday member events or educational field trips. You might not even have to work - other than doing a bit of internet searching. The world-class observatory at our local college is open free to the public every Saturday evening. I've seen the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. Check out what your local institutions of higher education have to offer.

Parks and recreation also have free offerings. Of course, a picnic in a local park can be frugal fun, but check websites and local publications for other events and free admission days. California has some great fishing lakes and streams nearby, but the cost of a non-resident license, even for a day, is prohibitive. But their free fishing days provide fun, and maybe even a chance to put some food in the freezer. That sounds good to me!

And don't overlook the possibilities in playing tourist in your own hometown. Check out your local visitors' bureau for more calendars and events - maybe even free coupons. I'm sure there are lots of things in your area that might cost a bit of time and effort, but no money. Take the time to look for them, and enjoy the things that feed your soul.