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Volunteers lining up for arts festival


The annual Columbia Festival of the Arts requires so much volunteer labor that it needs a volunteer just to schedule all the volunteers.

The festival's large cadre of volunteers -- more than 275 this year -- does everything from preparing hospitality baskets for the performing artists to taking tickets at the 10 performance venues in and around Columbia.

"We got a nice mix of experienced and new volunteers," says Leslie Landsman, who has been the festival's volunteer and hospitality coordinator for five years.

"The Columbia Festival is a happy and fun event that people enjoy being a part of. They are a part of the performances and meet the artists. Community spirit is a big pull. Plus, the more hours they work, the more events they can see," says Ms. Landsman, 49, of Columbia.

Now in its seventh year, the festival -- which runs Friday through June 25 -- is the biggest arts event in Howard County and one of the biggest in Maryland.

And this year's version -- with 60 events -- will be the biggest since 1991, says Lynne Nemeth, the festival's managing director.

Almost 30,000 festival-goers, 10,000 more than last year, are expected during the 10 days of performances. The entertainment line-up lists 39 activities at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia Town Center, an expanded crafts show with 66 exhibitors and three days of events keyed to Columbia 28th birthday celebration, which has been merged with the festival.

To accommodate the festival's growth this year, its budget has been increased by $30,000 from $400,000 last year. The funds come from contributions from local residents, the Maryland State Arts Council, the Howard County Arts Council, the Columbia Foundation and 33 corporations including Pepsico Inc., the Ryland Group, the Rouse Co. and First National Bank of Maryland.

This year's volunteers range from 12-year-old students to retirees in their late 70s. Their number has grown by 25 this year, with almost 100 new volunteers joining the ranks.

Each will put in from three to 80 hours of work in about 600 roles assigned by Ms. Landsman and a volunteer, Judy Combs, who try to match volunteers' skills and interests with the chores.

Volunteers who log three to 12 hours will receive two free tickets to one event. Those who work up to 30 hours will receive two tickets to two events; those who work up to 45 hours will receive two tickets to two events and two tickets to a third event or a lawn pass to Merriweather Post for one concert. And volunteers who put in 46 hours or more will receive two tickets to three events, a lawn pass to Merriweather Post Pavilion and a festival tote bag.

For volunteers with a strong interest in the arts, the opportunity -- to work at an arts event is one of the job's biggest attractions.

Ms. Combs, a retired Prince George's County second- and third-grade teacher who lives in Columbia, has been a festival volunteer for five years. She also has volunteered for 16 years at the Columbia Community Players theatrical troupe.

"I feel volunteering and putting back into my community is what I enjoy doing," says Ms. Combs, 58.

"I also like that there are so many people who pitch in to make the festival what it is, showing that the festival is an important part of the community. Besides, I have a really good time."

The desire to work for the arts event, coupled with the reward of catching a performance here and there, has made nonglamorous assignments attractive.

For this year's festival, in addition to scheduling volunteers, Ms. Combs has signed on to sell T-shirts, take fees for master classes presented by the Uptown String Quartet, answer telephones at the festival office and work at the opening night reception.

"And I go around and do things," she says. "If they ask me to stuff an envelope, I do that, too. And if I'm taking tickets or selling refreshments or T-shirts, then I can sit down and watch a performance.

For 17-year-old dancer Mandy Kirschner of Columbia, the opportunity to be close to the artists inspired her to work as a performer and a volunteer.

A graduating senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where she studied modern dance and ballet, Mandy also trained at Dance Dimension in Columbia for 10 years. She will perform with the Columbia company during the festival at River Hill High School June 21 in Clarksville.

Mandy also has signed up as a volunteer at a Pilobolus dance concert, where she will prepare the company's costumes before the show and help dancers change. And she will work at the Children's Art Project helping youngsters create an art installation project.

One veteran volunteer is returning for his fifth year -- even though he moved to Florida 18 months ago.

Bob Rumsey retired as a computer programmer for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia two years ago and moved to Sarasota. But last year, he drove back to Maryland to volunteer at the festival. This week, he will return again.

"I enjoy what I do," Mr. Rumsey, 70, says from his Florida home. "I find it very gratifying to help with the festival. It's nice to be useful."

On the festival's application form for volunteers, Mr. Rumsey signed up for 13 jobs and "more if there is time." He plans to work 60 to 70 hours -- helping crafts vendors set up and take down, making deliveries, posting direction signs, doing painting and carpentry and driving performers to and from the airport and train and bus stations.

Volunteers may choose from more than 36 jobs. They sometimes become part of the event.

For this year's production of "The Belle of Amherst," volunteers will use the play's recipe for black cake and will sell the home-baked cakes after the performance.

Scheduling about 600 volunteer positions took a week for Ms. Landsman and Ms. Combs, who juggled requests while considering applicants' special needs.

"We have to accommodate all the different jobs at different times and with different needs," Ms. Landsman says. "One can't work Tuesdays, another has to sit when she works. And if someone wants to work with someone else, then we have to coordinate two applications."

Another scheduling challenge is the 30 husband-and-wife teams that have signed up.

Shunning technology, Ms. Landsman prefers to set up the intricate schedule on a 20-foot board in the festival office. "There are too many variables to do it on a computer."

Although the deadline for applying as a volunteer was May 1, Ms. Landsman is still receiving calls for positions and filling out slots for latecomers.

"I never turn away a volunteer," she says.

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