27 January 2006
by Amelia Nielson-Stowell
They are the backbone of the Sundance Film Festival, and although you won't see them featured on "E!" or smiling in "US Weekly," the work of Sundance's 1,272 volunteers is crucial in pulling off the international event year after year.
"When you compare that to the fact that there's only 190 staff members, they really make the festival," said Sherry Mason, who manages the team of Sundance volunteers.
Alumni volunteers make up a huge portion of the force — 820 are returning. "They come back because of this energy about Sundance that you can't describe until you participate."
With midnight movies, late parties and 8:30 a.m. screenings, Sundance is a 24-hour event that Mason refers to as "controlled chaos." Volunteers come from all over the world, but hundreds are locals, some who volunteer year-round with the Sundance Institute. "The people at Sundance are some of the most interesting people anywhere," said Kate Sturgeon, a Murray resident who has volunteered year-round for four years now. "In my corner of Murray, they're not that interesting."
"I'm not impressed with the stars. I don't like the films. That's not what I do it. . . . It's the people."
Mason compares the atmosphere to summer camp — people from all different backgrounds mingle and have fun for 10 days, then they go back to their respective homes and count down to the following January.
With a stylish uniform and movie vouchers as perks, each year, "we get thousands and thousands of applications." But for the aspiring actor or filmmaker who may use the volunteer position as a way to self-promote, a screening process weeds them out.
"It's a different thing volunteering here," Mason said. "We absolutely count on our volunteers."
Volunteers are in every department of the Sundance Institute and do a wide variety of jobs, from accounting to street sweeping. They also span a large age range — the youngest is 21 years old and the oldest is 84. While a few hundred alumni get free lodging in Park City, the majority of volunteers commute from various places in Utah or pay for their own lodging.
Trina Polta, a Sandy resident, is in her second year of volunteering at the festival and takes vacation time from work to commute and volunteer in Park City.
"It's kind of like Disneyland. Everyone's working here, meeting new people from all over the world. . . . It's an atmosphere you can't find every day."
Twenty-two of this year's volunteers have served for 10 years or more.
"You get to meet people who love films. And I love independent films because they are mostly based on dialogue," said Penn Street, a fifth year volunteer from Estes Park, Colo. Street has Stevens Johnson Syndrome, an adverse drug reaction that has made her sight slowly fade away. She brought her guide dog, Gina, to this year's festival.
"I didn't think Sundance would want a visually impaired person because it's so visual. But they were incredibly welcoming," she said.
This year she volunteers at the info booth at headquarters. In previous years, she has worked at the Eccles and Egyptian theaters.
She jokes about the amount of supposed "FOB" that come to the festival ("Friends of Bob"), trying to get free access to movies and parties because of their rumored connection to the Sundance founder. Because of her sight loss, "I treat everyone the same because I still can't make out people's faces."
But one famous pop diva became upset when Street didn't recognize and acknowledge her presence at the Eccles Theater a few years ago.
Currently, Street and husband, Moses, also a Sundance volunteer, are working on their own documentary about the debilitating disease, in part with the Stevens Johnson Syndrome Foundation. Street is the narrator of the documentary that chronicles the effect the disease has on people, particularly children.
"Who knows," she said, "maybe we'll end up at Sundance."