What Money Can't Buy

Spokane Civic Theatre has a seven-figure budget, but its seven front-of-house volunteers are just as important

What Money Can't Buy
Kristen Black
Keith Dixon (left) and Marnie Rorholm

"You know you work in community theater when your sofa spends more time on stage than it does in your living room," says Keith Dixon, reciting an adage familiar to many of the volunteers who've been involved with the kinds of productions that the Spokane Civic Theatre has been staging for 67 years.

The adage is equally familiar to Dixon. He's worked on the professional side of community theater ever since completing his degree in 2001. Before joining the Civic as its new artistic director this past June, he spent 10 seasons as managing artistic director for Louisiana's Theatre Baton Rouge, an organization that bears the emphatic tagline "for the community, by the community."

"Very quickly I realized that I loved working with volunteers because they don't do it for a paycheck," he says. "They don't do it for anything but the joy and love of it. They work eight, nine, 10 hours a day in their careers or go to school or what have you, and then they spend their downtime with us. You can't teach that kind of passion."

Dixon is one of the Civic's two top-level hires since Yvonne A.K. Johnson was let go last summer. In July, Marnie Rorholm, who has worked for the City of Spokane and Gonzaga University, was brought on as the theater's interim managing director. That position will become full-time at the start of October.

Like Dixon, Rorholm has spent years in community theater treading the boards, not to mention serving on them. "I volunteered here for 12 years, and most of it was onstage," she says. "And the reason why I did it [is that] every show that you do, you pick up about 40 new friends. These people are professionals in their regular life, or they have other talents and backgrounds, and they take that talent and bring it to the theater."

The two say they're a natural complement to one another in these executive positions, with Rorholm being the networked native Spokanite who can leverage the power of her local Rolodex, and Dixon being the hard-eyed out-of-towner with years of experience overseeing a professional-quality community theater like the Civic. What both stress is their recognition of the essential role played by the volunteer — not just onstage, but in all aspects of the theater's operation.

"We have a crew of probably seven [front-of-house] volunteers a night per show, then expand that out over the run for the entire theater, all the shows we do on the main stage, all the shows we do down below" in the Firth J. Chew Studio, says Rorholm. Nor is volunteering limited to cast, crew and ticketing. The Civic's latest venture, a massive costume and prop rental space called The Little Shop of Rentals, was only made possible through volunteer effort.

"We have work parties where people come in, and somebody puts the barcode on, and somebody takes a picture of the costume, and somebody loads it into the inventory," she says. "They do wonderful things for us. They come back and say, 'Can I take your posters around town and put them up?' What's really awesome is watching a volunteer come in for whatever role and then stay with us for years."

"To me," says Dixon, "the volunteer has to be the most important thing. I learned early on that it's not my theater. It's the community's theater. And there is an ownership that goes with that. Whether they painted a piece of furniture or they just came in here and took the trash out, or took tickets, they helped make it happen. They are the heart and soul of the organization. Without them, we don't exist." ♦

Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival @ Gonzaga University Jepson Center

Through Feb. 5
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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.