The Tattoo, my favorite part of the Virginia Arts Festival, begins Thursday, April 27 through Sunday, April 30. There will be 1,000 performers from the United States and around the world, including fife and drum corps, bagpipers, military bands, precision drill teams, and Highland dancers.
There was something else quite spectacular going on this week. I tried to stay out of the way while a dozen volunteers, and a couple of Norfolk’s finest from the NPD, guided 100 buses into the not so big parking lot behind the Scope nose to tail, like sardines in a tin. The very energetic Sandy Miller, Volunteer Coordinator of the Virginia Arts Festival, was in charge. She is the front of house manager. She makes sure that all the volunteers who deal with the public are trained and ready. Sandy and the volunteers hopped on every bus as it pulled in to greet the students, give them directions for where to go and to make sure to “cross the road with the policemen.” The whole thing was run like a very friendly military operation.
There were 4,200 kids from 47 different schools. They came from as far as Gloucester County and as close as Norfolk. They were safely delivered into the Scope to watch the Tattoo. There will be 5,200 kids coming on Thursday morning and 6,000 on Friday morning.
Those dozen volunteers are only the tip of the volunteer iceberg for the Tattoo. Roxanne Sweeney, the Operations Manager of the Tattoo, relies on 200 to 250 volunteers each year for 12 days from the time the performing groups arrive from around the world until they depart. The volunteers do everything from picking up groups from the airport, driving them to educational outreach at schools, feeding the cast and crew, to “dressing up the Scope Arena so that it doesn’t look like a hockey arena.” The volunteers help with back stage set-up and assist with the Tattoo Hullabaloo, the free pre-show events on the Scope Plaza.
“It would not be possible without our volunteers,” Roxanne says. There is a core group who take vacation from their “real” jobs and return to help at the Tattoo year after year. The volunteers range from 8 on up. They come from Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, the military, both retired and active, ODU, NSU, area high schools, and corporate sponsors.
There are volunteers who have been with the Virginia International Tattoo from the very beginning. The Tattoo has always been a part of the Virginia Arts Festival since its inception as the Virginia International Waterside Arts Festival in 1997.
Eileen Aquino has been volunteering for the Tattoo since 1997. She has moved up the volunteer ranks and is now the Transportation Coordinator, “in charge of the wheels.” She is a banker with Bank of America, but takes a week vacation each year to volunteer at the Tattoo. She has a complicated job, with lots of moving parts. Eileen has to make sure that all of the 1,000 cast members have transportation to and from hotels to the Scope, to schools for outreach programs, and to sightseeing opportunities. A group from Singapore might decide they want to go to the beach on a free afternoon. A drummer from England might need a trip to the hospital. She also has to make sure that all the bagpipes, drums and other instruments are transported safe and sound. She coordinates all this with 25 volunteer drivers.
How does she do it? “It’s magic,” she says.
“I come back every year because I enjoy the people. This is like Band Camp. I get to see the same people every year who love the Tattoo as much as I do.”
Eileen’s Tattoo Band Camp friend, Nina Britt, is also an original volunteer. Nina helps with transportation coordination, but she also volunteers each year to be the liaison for one group. This year, Nina and her husband Michael are staying at the hotel with the group from Australia.
“We’re like their mom and dad while they’re here in Hampton Roads. We do whatever we can to make them comfortable while they’re here,” Nina says.
Kevin Bell takes a vacation week each year from his job as a business banker in Charlotte, NC to volunteer as Operations Assistant. He’s in charge of feeding the volunteers, cast, and crew throughout the week. He also handles the budget for the week of the Tattoo.
“I come back every year because I love it,” he says. “I love the chaos. I love the people and I love the Arts Festival.”
Scott Jackson, Producer/Director of the Virginia International Tattoo, is extremely proud of Sandy Miller, Roxanne Sweeney and the hundreds of volunteers.
“The energy that drives the Tattoo is our volunteers,” Jackson says. “Every year they stand with the year round staff and take a deep breath before the wonderful chaos that is the Tattoo begins and they are ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
He continues, “When the dust settles, we will have put on an event of national and international significance with a very, very small paid staff. How do you accomplish that? You don’t worry about which people are staff and which people are volunteers. You establish what needs to get done, you share that with a team of passionate people and you believe in them and watch them do great things.”
If you would like to volunteer for the Tattoo or the Virginia Arts Festival, go to here.
For more information on the Virginia Arts Festival and the Virginia International Tattoo, go to here.