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Volunteer Susan Spiegel Makes the Reason for the Season
by Karen Pecota

The thirty-year success of the Sundance Film Festival has been built largely on the volunteers who serve over 40,000 attendees each year. Roughly 1500 men and women schedule their lives around working at the festival each year.

The service of faithful volunteers is the reason for the successful Sundance Film Festival season. The festival acknowledges that its thirty-plus-year success is largely due to their volunteers. Often giving up their own annual vacation days to make the film festival a huge success the Sundance Film Festival Volunteers love to participate.

The current stats suggest roughly 1,500 volunteers are needed, accepted and scheduled per festival. Due to the magnitude of events surrounding the annual Independent Film showcase, the Sundance Film Festival could not effectively accommodate the 40,000+ attendees without their volunteer staff.

The volunteers help guide festival goers have a positive experience.

Naturally the festival wouldn't exist without the independent filmmakers and their passion. Or, quality leadership to cast vision and implement structure for a venue showcasing independent films. They certainly could not host such an event without a committed film audience. The festival is all about Independent filmmakers showing their wares in a controlled environment. Who helps to realize this? The volunteer!

The volunteer staff keeps this festival rolling year after year. Highly organized! A well-greased system is the foundation for their success. Sundance Film Festival director, John Cooper says that the volunteer staff makes all the difference for a successful festival. Without them the festival would not exist. Therefore, a special day designated in the middle of the festival week is set aside to honor them--Volunteer Appreciation Day. A film trailer is made in their honor and on Volunteer Day it is shown before each screening. (see link on the Sundance Film Festival 2014 website archive)

While standing in line for a screening, I noticed a volunteer who looked similar to a friend of mine. I dismissed the idea because I had a hard time placing my friend in the festival context. Feeling strongly that it was Susan Spiegel, I approached her once I got into the theater. Yep! It was Susan. Both of us, surprised! We laughed!  We exchanged salutations and enjoyed the chance to briefly chat.

I did not see Susan again due to our crazy work schedules. But, I caught up with her back in Seattle and asked for an interview about her journey to becoming a Sundance Festival Volunteer. She agreed:

It was funny how I got involved as a volunteer. In August of 2011 (the year prior to my first Sundance Film Festival volunteer experience), I had gone to Peru. While I was in Peru, I broke my back. I had what they call a compression fracture. Needless to say, I was out of commission for a while.

We have a condo in Park City, Utah (home of the Sundance Film Festival) and I was scheduled to use the condo for a snow skiing vacation in January of 2012. The doctor politely said that the recovery would take a long time and I would not be able to ski come winter. Though disappointed I would figure out another vacation plan.

Knowing little about film I remembered the Sundance Film Festival was scheduled at the time of my planned ski trip. Housing already secured, I thought I could attend the film festival.  While looking at the price of film tickets I happened upon the advertisement for volunteers. I liked the idea. I had volunteered for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC. and loved it.

The process I went through to become a volunteer was simple. I began to fill out the application. One of the questions asked, "Do you know how to use Nunchucks? Hmm! I thought about it and remembered when my kids were into Ninja Turtles they had something to do with Nunchucks but I didn't know how to use them. I answered honestly, said no and submitted my application. They called me and  interviewed me over the phone. Sometime later I called the volunteer office to inquire of my chances. They informed me that I was accepted and happy to invite me to join the volunteer team. I was excited!

I have worked as a full-time Sundance Film Festival volunteer for the past three years (2012, 2013, 2014) here in Park City, Utah. The first year I provided my housing. Sometimes a house is provided for the volunteer depending on the circumstances. In general, I pay my expenses to get there. I receive food vouchers, tickets to the films and a given a special winter jacket from festival sponsor Kenneth Cole. The jackets set us apart for all to see that we are an official part of the festival and we can offer assistance.

There are part-time positions available but I worked a full-time shift consisting of at least eight hours. The day shift is from 7:30 am to 4:00 pm; the night shift is from 3:30 pm to 11:00 pm or until the films are over for the night. My schedule is to work a few day shifts consecutively, then switch to a few night shifts and then switch back including one day off.

Preferably I arrive a couple of days before the festival and return home a day or two after the festival. Before the festival begins the atmosphere in town is very low-key. Fewer people are around and it is relaxing. During the festival there are thousands of people in attendance and the festival-life is action-packed 24/7. I like to have a couple days to slowly gear-up and then a day to decompress. It gets me in the groove to enjoy the whole festival as well as look forward to returning the following year.

The learning curve for my job is not difficult. The festival has a variety of venues located all over the city. All three years I served at a smaller venue called The Yarrow Theater. It is actually a make-shift theater located in the Ballroom of the Park City, Yarrow Hotel. It has comfortable seating set on sturdy risers positioned for the best possible viewing on a large theater screen.

Each theater has a certain protocol for the jobs. My theater being relatively small has my team rotate positions--to get to know all the jobs available. My boss is great and has us rotate so that we can see at least two films a shift and sometimes more. After each film we switch positions to keep our job interesting.

My favorite positions are: 1) working with the crowd because it gives me a chance to talk with the people attending the film and, 2) working inside the theater. This position allows me to view the films while working. We usually have at least five people in the theater while the film is showing. Our theater has three entrance/exit doors that must be manned at all times because one enters on one side of the theater and must exit on the other side. One can't go in and out at the same door. A certain protocol is followed to allow for the best organization possible for crowd control and a pleasant experience.

The first year it took me the whole festival to get into the festival flow and  understand how the festival worked, understand my specific job of ushering film goers into the theater, manning the Exit doors while film is in progress and to understand the theater set-up. As a full-time volunteer, my duties have been the same for the past three years. My days are roughly 8 to 10 hour days. At times longer, if I attend a screening after my work schedule. The first year I was happy to simply learn my job, be a good worker at the volunteer job I was given and learn how the festival operates. This was important to me.

My favorite part of being a Sundance Film Festival Volunteer is first and foremost the opportunity to connect with the people I meet--the staff I am privileged to work with and the audience I am allowed to serve. Secondly, I am privileged to be able to see a number of interesting films I would not normally view in a mainstream theater.

Dealing with the public on a regular basis there are often funny or surprising experiences that catch us off guard. One that comes to mind was the year, actor Richard Gere was at the festival for his performance in the film Arbitrage. I have been a fan of his for years. I happened to be standing outside of the hotel where he was to make an appearance for an interview. I noticed a car drive up with Gere inside. It shocked me to see him without an entourage. Gere jumped out of his car in haste. As he was moving toward the hotel entrance, I gingerly approached him and congratulated him on the film. I asked if I could get a quick photo and he politely told me he was in a hurry because he was late for his make-up session. He stopped, then  graciously encouraged me to take the shot answering, "Well...Yes,... if you do it quickly, it will be fine". He then smiled! I was ready to melt!

I was impressed that he did not push me aside nor ignore my request in an arrogant manner. He acknowledged me because I am a fan. He graciously allowed me entrance into his space. I was honored! Not to mention, ecstatic!

The thing that keeps me coming back to volunteer is mainly the people.

I love it. It's such a positive experience, upbeat, and fun. I am a life-time volunteer meaning I love to give of my free time to worthwhile projects. The Sundance Film Festival is a worthwhile endeavor where I am proud to be a participant.