Volunteers at the heart of the Festival

Amanda Smuin


Sydney Writers’ Festival volunteers meet former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, one of the Festival stars

The volunteers at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF), affectionately known as ‘vollies’, are a diverse bunch but they all have one thing in common. They love books.

Jemma Birrell, the Festival’s artistic director, introduced the theme of this year’s Festival as “How to live” with the tagline, “It’s thinking season”. That certainly applies to this years’ crop of volunteers. Rosemary Burnside, a second year vollie, says, “I just love being part of the book world. Everybody there is a thinker and a reader and a sharer of ideas.”

Misty McPhail started as a volunteer, and is now the SWF volunteer coordinator. She says, “I saw how inspiring it was and wanted to get more involved.” After working with other events and as an artist liaison for the Festival in 2012, she started her current position in 2014. She describes her role as the best job on the team”.

The Festival relies on the volunteers to ensure the event is a success. The team has only eight staff year round however, their numbers swell to 15 in the lead up to Festival and they are helped out by 50 to 60 production crew members during the actual event. This year there are 371 events in 60 venues with 445 authors.

Rosemary Burnside, a second year vollie, describes the volunteers as “the glue holding it all together”. Misty McPhail agrees. “We can’t be 50 places at once or do everything; we need the help to run the venues and answer all the questions.”

The team this year is a mix of new and experienced volunteers, past Festival attendees and people from the city and the suburbs. Three hundred and fifty people applied to be volunteers, but only a maximum of 250 can take part dependent on availability. Most have interests that tie in with the Festival.

There are students of literature, journalism, film studies, music and publishing. They are poets and writers who have written books or are in the process of writing their first drafts. Bianca Inglezos, a second year vollie, has recently finished her first book. Sarah Ambrose, a publishing student volunteering for the fourth time, is currently in the process of editing it for her.

The Festival has a growing social media presence that now plays an important role for the volunteers. The Sydney Writers’ Festival Volunteers Facebook page has over 200 members. The page is a place for volunteers to share photos and stories of their experiences. It also allows volunteers to keep in touch with the friends they’ve made after the festival is over.

Most of the volunteers agree that the best part of the Festival is meeting, chatting to and spending time with other volunteers. Deborah Barry, a second year vollie, says, “You’re with people with the same likes. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

The volunteers also enjoy the gratitude they receive from the Festival organisers and the patrons. On orientation day, the vollies received a book bag full of books, magazines and other goodies, including the coveted T-shirt, as a thank you. And those who have been with the Festival for five or ten years, received special badges. As Misty McPhail says, “They deserve all the accolades from the public they’re helping and our program is certainly all the better for having them.”