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Parent volunteer woes


hannahbeth

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My daughter is in a company affiliated school. The way it works at her school is that there are actually two schools - the Open School (for recreational dancers) and the company school. The company school is by audition only. Open school kids take once a week, they do a recital in spring, but they have the opportunity to audition for the two full-length ballets each year. My daughter is in the company school. As such, I had to sign a contract committing to the rules of the school, classes at least 3 days a week, and committing to all performances, etc. Parents of company kids have to volunteer during performances (we do have one day off to view the ballet). It's a huge committment and as part of the audition, parents conference with the ADs and go over just how much is expected of the dancer and the parents. Thing is, we have A LOT of parents who are not showing up. Yesterday was our last Nutcracker performance and over half of the company parents who were scheduled to work did not show! I am in charge of parent volunteers (don't ask me how I got this job), and I am trying to come up with some changes to improve the way things are run.

 

I need some suggestions! We are scheduling a company parents' meeting for January, and we want to completely rework how things are currently done to improve parent participation. I was worn out yesterday. I was running around like a lunatic backstage making sure everyone's makeup and hair was right, making sure the kids were all in their places, trying to manage the open school auditionees, and dealing with prima dona parents (I got cussed out TWICE yesterday!). I would love to hear how other companies handle parent volunteers. Any suggestions?

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Financial disincentives. The contract you sign should be rewritten to include a penalty clause that spells out in gruesome detail what nonperformance of volunteer duties will cost a family. To determine that cost, figure out what it would cost to hire someone to perform those same duties.

 

I think it's a sad reflection on society today that people don't honor their volunteer obligations (not to mention what they're teaching their children by blowing off these commitments). But a lot of private and parochial schools do this now, and it does seem to work better than saying "please, oh please, oh please show up and help us." :(

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Financial disincentives.  The contract you sign should be rewritten to include a penalty clause that spells out in gruesome detail what nonperformance of volunteer duties will cost a family.  To determine that cost, figure out what it would cost to hire someone to perform those same duties. 

 

That's what we were thinking. It's sad that the only way to get some people to meet their obligations is to hit them in the pocketbook. These are the same parents who are the first to complain about things being disorganized, their kids not being properly watched etc. Well, there is only so much we can do when people don't show up to work. Had one mom yesterday chew me up and spit me out because I told her she had to buy a ticket for the performance. She thought since she had shown up to work at one performance out of ten she was entitled to a free ticket. I'm lucky if I ever even get to watch a performance at all! I usually end up watching from the wings. I honestly think some people don't even realize that volunteers build and paint the sets, sew the costumes, design and apply the makeup, setup and take down the shows, etc. They have no dance or theater background, so they have no idea how much goes into these productions. All they want is to see their darling children in pretty costumes dancing on the stage. And it never fails that the kids of parents who don't help out are the ones with attitudes themselves. I worked professionally in the theater for years (musical director of a professional company), so I knew at the onset what would be required of me and my dd. Funny thing is, those of us who work the hardest are the ones who really don't care so much about the productions - it's the training that is most important to us.

 

I will take your suggestion to the board. The parents who don't want to volunteer are always the ones who complain loudest about the costs of dancing, so I really believe applying a financial penalty for not volunteering will work. Thanks

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As a former Volunteer Coordinator for several races (running and cycling) and Nutcracker here are some suggestions. First make sure that there are rules, guidelines and notices in place that make it EASY to be a volunteer.

 

Look at the system that your studio currently has and see if improvements can be made there first. Sorry this is so long!

 

First How are volunteers chosen? If they sign up are they notified or is there a follow-up? Perhaps sending sheets home or follow-up phone calls from committee heads will help. When the Nut parts are assigned is there a parent student meeting? Do the dancers sign a committment sheet? Parents? Is there a section in there going over again the parent volunteer duties? Perhaps they need to be reminded!

 

Then post a volunteer assignment sheet a few weeks before the performance. This will allow time for people to switch or find a replacement if there are conflicts. Volunteers are then called or reminded a few days before. Also do all of the parents of performers have to volunteer or only the company members? If only the company members parents (who are normally tired of volunteering!) are required then that may be part of your problem.

 

Is there only 1 person (you) in charge of all parent volunteers or several? If only one person is in charge then I would suggest breaking it down into several area's: backstage parent (in charge of everything) costumes, props, quick change dressers, publicity etc.,. I would have these people in place and at the Nutcracker parent/dancer meeting if you have one. Then the other parents can see who is in charge and what areas they might want to work in. This is especially important if you have a lot of younger dancers/parents who aren't aware of all of the different volunteer activities.

 

Dd danced at one Nut where the volunteers wore these really cute monogramed red aprons backstage. They had the name of the group they were with- mice, angels etc., Not only were they a great place to put extra bobby pins and supplies but the dancers and other volunteers knew who they were. Name tags are also helpful backstage!

 

Put a person in charge of each group- senior company members, angels, mice, party children, etc., Those people are responsible for calling and making sure that each of their volunteers are there. If not then they come and report to the backstage parent. Normally these people will enlist parents of children their kids ages and they know them better and can harass them daily afterwards if they don's show up!

 

Is there a volunteer sheet with all of the volunteers names and phone numbers-cells included? Do the volunteers understand their duties? How to put on a mouse costume, party makeup etc., If not then you can either type up the information or pass it on by word of mouth.

 

In the dancer/parent hand out is there a sheet specifically stating what each parts hair, makeup and dress should be? At all of the studios that dd has been at only the senior company members were allowed to show up at the theatre without their hair and makeup done. Then the parent volunteer only has to check and touch-up makeup. Except for the Mother Ginger children or any groups requiring special makeup. This is very helpful if you are using a lot of open school kids whose parents may not know what is expected. List the makeup that they are supposed to use by brand and color. Have a drawing of a face that shows where and how to put the makeup.

 

Also are the different groups of younger dancers seated together in a specific area? Mice only sit with mice in a specific area backstage etc., . Parents of the younger dancers send activitites for the dancers to do while waiting to go onstage. My dd learned how to crochet backstage one year. The parent volunteers normally bring lawn chairs and sit the entire time with their group. Then that parent is in charge of getting those kids on and off of the stage. Undressing, hanging up costumes and keeping them under control. 2 volunteers are best for the younger kids! Sometimes more depending on your group of kids!

 

At most of the Nuts my dd has danced at only parent volunteers are allowed backstage. One parent volunteer(this is normally the backstage head volunteers assistant) stands at the backstage door and checks in every dancer and volunteer. If there are not there by a certain time then phone calls are made. Dancers go to their areas and stay with the volunteer-they aren't running around backstage which helps cut down on the confusion. Prima donna parents are too busy to bother you- and if they do then put them in charge of something!

 

At the parent meeting next month have an evaluation of the Nutcracker specifically focusing on volunteers. Ask people at the studio for their honest opinion of how things could be done differently. Sometimes volunteers do things the same way for years "because it has always been that way" and they aren't the most efficient way to do things. New parents have great ideas but are often intimidated by the old parents.

 

Volunteering needs to be fun (okay well as fun as you can make it) for the parents. Do you have a volunteer appreciation lunch? Award? Snacks? Volunteer duties also need to be manageable for each family.

 

We have also found that a lot of people want to volunteer but will not do so unless specifically ASKED (I have never figured this one out!) by someone to do so.

 

I am sure that you have probably already done all of these things at your studio. It is very frustrating being one of the few volunteers back stage while others aren't helping.

 

 

Good Luck. If you have any other questions let me know.

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Tell them you've taken out a mechanic's lien on their kids. They can't have them back unless they help with Nutz. :(

 

(of course, then there's the unpleasant possibility that you might get stuck with a lot of other people's kids!)

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Looks like you were posting when I was writing out my volunteer manual! :(

 

I would suggest that the studio has a different committe for each of the areas you listed in your post below- set up of sets, take down, design etc., These committee members only (if possible) do their assignments. Then they are manageable. Unless you just want to if you are a mouse mom then you shouldn't have to strike the set! Your duties should be over when the mice leave the theatre-IMO.

 

If you have 10 performances then it sounds like you have a decent sized studio. Determine how many performances each person has to volunteer at and stick to it.

 

You'd better have that meeting in late January so you can cool down before then!

:(

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And there are offstage committees, too! The telephone tree people who keep everybody updated on rehearsals and other scheduled events, the program committee who solicit advertising, the actual printing committee who make the arrangements with the printer, and so on and so forth. You don't want so many people backstage that the place is a subway station at rush hour! A well-run backstage doesn't take so many people to manage, but a firm yet gentle hand is needed to guide the crews through their various duties.

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hannahbeth, you've gotten superb suggestions here. The only other thing I'd add is that if it's possible to have the schedule posted on the website so it can be updated quickly - that would be another helpful method for keeping parents on track. Good luck! :grinning:

 

P.S. LRS, your school's program sounds incredibly well organized! :wub:

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What we are definitely missing is the phone tree. How it currently works is auditionee parents have a meeting during Nut auditions. At this meeting, someone from the company goes over the expectations for participating. They pass around a signup sheet for volunteering at this meeting, and the director of operations tries to accomodate people's preferences. A week or two later at one of the early rehearsals, there is a second parents meeting for auditionees where I conduct a makeup class teaching the parents how to apply the standard ballet makeup, and I demonstrate how to do a proper bun. About 3 weeks prior to performances, the work schedule is posted at the studio and passed out (along with performance schedule) to the parents. At dress rehearsal, I do another makeup demonstration for each cast. I apply the red circle cheeks, and specialty makeup at the theater for these kids. Typically the open school parents are pretty good about volunteering. For most of them it is their child's first performance, and so they are enthusiastic to help. I am coordinator for these parents along with one other company mom. We have the backstage area for the open school kids running like clockwork. Each group - mice, baby dolls, soldier, etc. have their own places and two chaperones for each group. Costumes are labeled with dancers' names, etc.

 

Our problem is with the COMPANY moms. Here we have the open school parents doing their part (they are all assigned chaperone duties, which require the least amount of experience). The company parents work as chaperones with the company kids, assist the professionals with quick costume changes, work crew, load in and load out, assist company kids with costume changes and makeup and hair touchups (they are supposed to come to the theater in makeup). These are the parents that aren't showing up. So what is happening is the AD comes looking for me to take care of things backstage, because of people who haven't shown up. For example, my daughter's class were party girls and candy canes in this production. The mom in charge of their room did not show up Friday night (my watch night) or yesterday. These girls range in age from 10-12. They are too young to be alone. My daughter's hairpiece fell off Friday night, because it wasn't pinned properly. One of the young girls tried to do her own makeup and it was a mess. Not to mention what these girls did to the dressing room! Halfway through the show Saturday night, I noticed the mom that was supposed to be chaperoning the B3s was sitting two rows in front of me. At intermission, I asked her why she wasn't working, and she replied that she wanted to go Christmas shopping Sunday, so she decided to watch Saturday night. The mom that was supposed to work the B3 dressing room yesterday wasn't there because she had planned her son's birthday party that day. We have had this schedule posted since the beginning of November. She could have let me or someone know she wasn't going to be there, so we could get a replacement. This is pretty typical. At our Thanksgiving weekend dress rehearsal, the AD was screaming my name from backstage. I ran out there to see what was happening (thinking my dd had committed a grievous faux pas). He was having a fit because none of the kids in my daughters group (except my daughter) had on eyeliner; two did not have ANY makeup on, and two had ponytails instead of buns. We have 100 kids in our performance, and I was with all of the non-company kids, so I had no idea the company girls had no adult attending them. I fixed all their hair and had them all in perfect makeup in a matter of minutes. That afternoon when the moms of these girls showed up, I went on the warpath. I once again showed them how to do the makeup (they always balk at the eyeliner and the amount of blusher needed). I once again showed a couple of the new company moms the required hair for the dress code (slicked high bun, wrapped in a hairnet, pinned securly - no whispies).

 

Sorry this is so long. What we definitely need is a committee to organize the productions, a phone tree, and serious consequences for those who shirk their responsibilities. I think we also need to update the company handbook with a section on parent responsibilities. I know not all parents will be able to jump in and do any job needed. My stage experience is extensive, and that is why the AD calls me when something goes wrong. I am really hoping we can revamp things and train these parents. Otherwise I am afraid we will lose some really good dancers, because their parents are tired of everything getting dumped on them.

 

Thanks for the help, and again, sorry this is so long.

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As always, it's great to have a consequence for misbehavior, whether it is on the part of parents or students. To that end, writing in a financial disincentive is one way to go.

 

But, you already have such a consequence in place. These parents signed a contract when they enrolled their kids in the company school. If they don't fulfill their obligations, tell them their kids are no longer welcome to reregister. They can attend the Open school. (Perhaps now is the time to institute a "buy-back" fee to make up for having missed the volunteer work; this could either be monetary or consist of helping with registration...).

 

If you aren't willing to enforce that clause, please take it out of the contract. People get away with not showing up because the school lets them. As a parent or as a manager, don't set any consequence that you are not willing to enforce.

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hey, hannahbeth, maybe I'm reading too deeply between the lines here, but it seems to me that your AD should be shouldering the lion's share of the responsibility for creating an effective volunteer system (especially if this AD is perhaps also the owner of the studio). It really sounds like you're getting taken advantage of here. Can you talk to/with him about this dilemma?

 

Also I have no idea if this is the case in your situation, but I'll just toss it out there for what it's worth. it's been my experience at ballet schools and in sports endeavors that if the parents perceive a school's owner or, say, a triathlon's race director, as profiting handsomely from operations, many parents become disinclined to bust their volunteering humps. And even if there aren't handsome profits in reality, sometimes just the perception of profit will turn people off. Just a thought. Do as you like with it! :grinning:

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I have a different perspective on volunteering though it does not sound like the situation with your company/school has this problem. My view, and dd has been dancing 5 years so I have had time to "marinate' on this point, is that some people (who shall remain nameless) are turned off to volunteering for a variety of reasons.

 

1) Diva Parents who hog as much of the 'visible' work as they can to try to (occasionally successfully) further their kids in the organization. These parents "suck up" as much as possible, commanding lesser known parents with disdain.

 

2) Disorganized AD's who wait until the last second to get everything done and then of course have to rely on the Diva Parents who are always ready to drop everything for reasons expressed above.

 

3) Unclear understanding of what needs to be done. On occasion I have been asked to volunteer, arrived and then basically dismissed because all bases were already covered.

 

Again, this is probably not the case with your company, but it could be affecting some of the people who are appearing to 'not cooperate' or follow the rules.

 

I am new to this board and hope I have not offended anyone. Please delete if this is not an acceptable post.

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AsleepAtTheWheel - don't worry about offending anyone with what you've just written. You're only calling a "spade a spade" and I have no doubt that the situation you've described will be recognizable to many. :grinning:

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