Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

SummersEND, Day One - Plate Spinning, Southern Manners, and All Access Passes

Well, people, I've hinted a bit about what I was up to this past weekend, and here I am finally starting to write about it. So much happened and there is so much to say that I wasn't entirely sure where to start, but starting at the beginning is always the best plan, and so here it is.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Claude Giroux, then-executive director of Events Wood Buffalo, for this blog. I told him how much I respect and admire what EWB has done in this community, and my desire to know more about how they organize a major event. I asked him for some direction on how to volunteer for a future event, and what aspect might give me the fullest sense of what EWB does. He suggested that I volunteer for SummersEND as a backstage hospitality/transportation host, and I was intrigued. About a week later I contacted Stephanie, EWB's volunteer co-ordinator, and told her about the discussion Claude and I had had. She contacted me almost immediately, and yes, there was a position available backstage, doing exactly what Claude had suggested. I agreed right away and committed 3 and 1/2 days to SummersEND - and people, it was one of the best things I've ever done in Fort Mac.

Photo credit to Amanda O'Keefe

I actually went in to help set up the dressing rooms the night before Reba and her "camp" (as they call the band/crew/support staff in the music touring business) arrived. This gave me a chance to meet and work with Jennifer Lamontagne, EWB's lead event co-ordinator. Now Jennifer is amazing - organized, professional, and able to keep about two dozen plates spinning at the same time. I thought I saw this clearly that very first night, but when the performing artists actually arrived I realized I'd seen nothing yet, since event planning is all about putting out fires as they start - and Jennifer is a firefighter of ferocious ability.

Photo credit to Amanda O'Keefe

The event was meticulously planned, of course, but what I quickly realized is that small things can, and do, go wrong. Delayed flights, miscommunications, time changes - Jennifer handled them all calmly and with great dignity. I was often amazed to see her with two phones going at the same time, while also speaking to someone standing in front of her, and writing something else with what had to be a third hand she grows for events.  I was quite completely in awe of her aplomb, as I tend to be a bit on the panicky side and such sudden changes would have me running and screaming. But Jennifer's can-do attitude and absolute calm made it easy to fall into that state, too, and suddenly I felt we could accomplish anything - and we did.

I can't go into a lot of detail about the performing artists and their camps as the time they spend backstage is private, of course. I can say that everyone I met that first night, from the local opening act to Victoria Banks' people to Reba's crew and musicians, was wonderful. Kind, thoughtful, and grateful, they made me feel like a part of their world for just the briefest of moments. At one point I dropped my pen and three of Reba's guys leaped to fetch it for me - southern gentlemen to the core. As for Reba herself - well, she is everything you think and hope she would be. She is a genuine lady, who looks you in the eye when she says "hi, how are you?", and who is obviously a complete professional. I think my favourite moment that night was when she arrived for the meet and greet and the people who had been waiting to meet her burst into spontaneous applause and cheers - and she deserves it, people, because she is not only a talented, successful woman, but a nice one, too.

Photo credit to Amanda O'Keefe

That first night I spent a lot of time making sure the dressing rooms were ready to go, stocked with ice and beverages and food. I also spent some time driving a 15-passenger van, which was a first for me, and an utter monster to drive (although by the end of the weekend I was wheeling that sucker around like it was a go kart). I also spent a lot of time observing the people from EWB, and was so impressed by their professionalism. Their ability to spin on a dime, and their ability to arrive at creative solutions to all the problems, gave me so much confidence in them. Even their Event Survival Kit, stocked with everything from hand soap to pens to pins to a dog leash, showed their attention to detail. I also spent time observing MacDonald Island staff, as they were providing the banquet services, and was so very impressed with them. In particular I'd like to mention one staff person, Evelyn. She was my go-to person for every request. After my fifteenth request for ice or a hot water carafe or a wine opener I'm sure she wished a hole would open up and swallow me when she saw me approaching, and yet she treated me kindly, and found me every single thing I asked for, and more. She too is a consummate professional, and I hope she (and her employer) realizes what a gem she is.

Towards the end of the evening, when Reba was playing, Jennifer came to me and another volunteer and indicated that she had tickets so we could go out and see a bit of Reba. Off we went into the cool September night to join the throngs of people who had come to see this country superstar. I've said before I'm not a country fan, and I'm not, but Reba is without a doubt a woman of passion, vision, and drive, and those three qualities impress me regardless of musical genre. I was thrilled that we had spots in the VIP section, and I ran into some people there  that I've met recently through this blog. I was able to show them my "All Access" backstage pass, proudly displayed around my neck, and tell them a bit about my time at SummersEND to that point. And now I tell you about it all, people.

Photo credit to Amanda O'Keefe

I have two more nights of stories to tell, and lots more observations to make. What I really learned on day one, though, was that being a volunteer is bloody hard work - and so very worth it. The rewards for me were huge, and not just in terms of this blog but on a personal level, too. When I saw the faces of the people who had come to the concert, when I saw their smiles and heard their cheers, I was so very proud to have been even the tiniest part of that. I am deeply grateful to EWB for giving me this opportunity, and incredibly pleased to have been able to work with people like Jennifer from EWB and Evelyn from MacDonald Island. These are the kinds of people who make our community what it is, and on that September night, the first day of SunmersEND, our community was spectacular!

Tomorrow - SummersEnd, Day Two

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