Volunteering for the Duke of Edinburgh Award

In the summer of 2012 I volunteered at various events in Orkney this included the St Magnus Festival and the Proclaimers gig in the Pickiquoy Centre. I emailed the front of house manager Esther Thompson and Stage Crew manager Ian Rushbrook and they were both eager to accept  my help.

The first event I volunteered at was “Gemini” in the Picky arena. I ascended the stairs and was greeted with some sort of drinks reception, I looked distraught through the throngs of men and women drinking wine and nibbling canopy. My desperate scanning found focus; the bar staff, I had seen them before. The Standing Stones Hotel was catering and I had just had my first shift there the previous weekend. Suddenly a familiar face caught my eye; it was Ms Devlin, the history teacher. I quickly shuffled over to escape the awkward lonesome fidgeting and glazed smiling. She was slightly puzzled by my presence at what seemed like the exactly opposite place teenagers should be on a Friday night but thankfully was eager to try and point me in the right direction.

I arrived in a room with around twenty or more people (which I had thought a bit excessive) and we were all given a name tag and I was pleased that somebody had managed to spell my name correctly. I was assigned to door duty with a woman named Ann. I had a peek in at the venue; it was quite an intriguing stage set up with a big grand piano and strange moody lighting. We talked and there was a slight awkwardness when she seemed to recognise me but I could not recall her and felt guilty for not being able to. So we worked out that we had worked together in the kitchen at the Stones last weekend, what a small world we live in?

Talking was pretty much all we did that though because the event was not as prolifically attended as predicted and the people who did come in either went from the reception, across the balcony to the main arena or used the other door on the ground floor. In the end I did not stay for the performance because that night was a private gig for MCTB for which I was formerly the drummer (but that is another story.)

The next morning I was volunteering at the OTMP coffee morning and concert. In this I took a more active role. This time I was to direct people to their seats as they came in the door.

Orkney traditional music seemed to appeal to the masses more than pretentious post-modern piano/flute/clarinet/violin/cello outfit, Gemini. The public streamed in thick and fast and directing them was harder than shifting cattle (I have had some limited prior experience.) People who wanted to sit together coming in ten minutes apart when I had been told to fill up from the back. It was hard to find the balance between being assertive enough to actually guide people and being too pushy. I found the experience quite stressful but useful nonetheless.

My next volunteering dates were on the next weekend of the festival and I was at the Pickiquoy Centre again; this time in the foyer directing people to one of three places: upstairs, downstairs or quayside suite for choir members. Some people were more willing to be guided than others and there was a bonus option for those who were buying at the door. This was definitely the volunteering I had signed up for; it was like nothing I had ever done before. A constant torrent of people all eyes searching frantically for a reference point and that reference point was you with your black polo shirt and trousers and official-looking name tag. I think I learnt a lot from those nights in reception; you had to talk with phrases rehearsed and repeated. There was no room to be introvert as most tended to be drawn to the older and more experienced, if you stood there quietly you would be no help at all. Meeting and greeting was never a favourite task of mine and I felt rather detached using unfamiliar lingo such as, “Good evening sir, how can I help you?” It felt strange to use this language but I found the profound formality of it all quite amusing. I also volunteered at the Cathedral for the Magnetic North concert doing much the same thing.

Another part of my volunteering experience was helping Ian Rushbrook and his stage crew set up and take down the stage for the Proclaimers on County Show weekend. It was amazing to witness a bare and empty sports hall transform into a venue over the course of several hours and to know that you had played a small but vital part in it. The very first task was to assemble the main stage which consisted of many interlocking black squares which all had to be individually assembled. The main contrast with this job and the St Magnus festival I quickly realised was that this was a largely physical challenge as well as having elements of teamwork and communication.

Next we had to assemble the two triangular tower structures referred to as “acoustic walls.” This was probably the most exciting part of the whole set up, I was asked to go up the scaffold and take the wooden panels up to complete the top parts of the tower. Thankfully I had a boy who could not have been much older than me helping. The job involved using a drill to screw the panels onto the frame; this was probably the most mortal I had ever felt. There was only a thin metal rail to prevent me falling if I lost my balance. Once we had completed the first tower I was just about to draw a sigh of relief but then we were pushed along, the whole scaffold was on wheels, to assemble the next tower.

I learnt quite a lot from the stage crew volunteering. Along with some practical skills, I realised how important it was to be able to communicate with each other because people could have been seriously injured if it was not coordinated properly. I had to learn to trust in the expertise of others and I found out how much effort goes into running a big event like that.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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