Surviving Bridgetown (as a volunteer)

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Sabrina Jalees at Lez Get Together, Bridgetown

It’s hard to believe that Bridgetown is over. For an event that only spanned four days, the hands and sweat and work that went into ensuring Bridgetown’s success felt immeasurable. So many people came together to put this thing together, and it was beautiful. And as a new comedian in the Portland scene, it was overwhelming and beyond inspiring to volunteer for this festival.

It was March 10th when I saw an ad on Facebook urging Portlanders to apply for a volunteer position. I texted my friend Christen, who has been part of the local comedy scene for years, to ask her if I should apply. “Yes,” she responded immediately. “K. Have you ever done it?” “Every year since I started comedy. Next best thing to performing.”

She was right.

I anxiously waited for a response to tell me whether or not I had been accepted. I checked my email compulsively each day, wait, waiting, waiting. Finally, after enough time had passed for my enthusiasm to lose steam, my phone buzzed and my screen lit up with a message from the Bridgetown coordinators. I had indeed been accepted, and I was to be a stage manager. My boyfriend teasingly berated me, saying that he worked for years doing volunteer grunt work before being able to stage manage. I took it as a sign that the resume I had submitted of my professional working career as an assistant had for once done me something good in life in that I could appreciate on a personal level.

A few weeks later, I was sitting upstairs in the Bossanova Ballroom with some fellow comedians as a part of volunteer orientation. I learned that the volunteer manager, who was also a local comic, had personally selected the volunteers they wanted to work with as stage managers for the festival. Everyone who sat around the table receiving diligent instructions was a comedian; we were all someone they said they trusted. It felt good to be part of a team of fellow comics, most of whom I knew. We were all in this together.

The volunteers received our assignments a few days later, and I was stoked beyond words that I was assigned to stage manage one of the shows I had selected – Lez Get Together, a spinoff of the incredibly successful local Lez Stand Up show. Other shows included North by Northwest – a show featuring comics from Seattle and Canada, a live recording of the Julian Loves Music podcast, an open mic, and the closing show at local bar My Father’s Place.

As I read over my assignment email, a rock hit my stomach. I was nervous. I had never managed a stage before. I would be working with local comedy godzillas, and some of the other comics on this list were big. I felt intimidated beyond description. What if I fucked up? The question nagged at me. I couldn’t stop imagining elaborate scenarios in which I royally fucked up the shows and was fired from my position.

For the most part, I didn’t fuck up. I learned that stage managing is mostly just handling the pre-arranged line-up, letting comics know when they were up next, timing the set, and lighting the comic performing on stage. There wasn’t a whole lot that could go wrong as long as you kept your phone in your hand and a tab on the comics. Some of the performers relied on me to help answer some questions or lend them things (chargers, pens, etc), or even surprisingly opened up about some personal problems. Others were quiet and kept the conversation to a minimum, but were pleasant. All were professional and so friendly to work with.

The shows all went well, and ended on or shortly after their scheduled times. There was one instance in particular with the Julian Loves Music podcast recording setup on stage was missing a chair and a mic that had to be provided by the theater after the show/recording had started. Even though I knew it was the venue’s job to arrange the set-up, my heart hung low in my gut during the duration of the show because I felt like it should have been my job to check and make sure that everything was right and ready to go. Rookie mistake. Julian was incredibly understanding and laughed it off afterward when I apologized to him, telling me that, “it added to the element that he doesn’t know what he’s doing with the podcast.” That alleviated the hangy gut feeling, and I swept it off as the busy crowd cleared the theater.

My boyfriend was kind enough to show up at every show I managed to support me. Having him there helped, knowing that I could go to him if something drastic happened and I needed some fast advice. Also, just plain relationship support is always the best. We ran around and bustled to shows we were excited to see between our shifts, talking about everyone and all the shows we had seen so far and special moments we had witnessed. There was comedic magic happening in Portland, and we were right in the middle of all of it.

The highlight of my time at Bridgetown came on Saturday night outside the Doug Fir Lounge. I had spent the days before with an envy-filled soul as I read about friend after friend on Facebook encountering or passing Rhea Butcher in the street. I had hoped that if I got anything out of Bridgetown – beside the amazing opportunity to work alongside my favorite local comics and big names and to support an amazing local festival in an artform I am personally invested in – it would be that I ran into Rhea Bucher or Cameron Esposito, who wasn’t on any of the bills but who I had hoped would travel here with Rhea for support or a secret performance.

I was parked and waiting for my boyfriend to finish his shift volunteering at a weird-but-awesome mixed media comedy show that was, in so many words, an online Omegle-broadcast comedy show in which the performer interacted with whatever rando popped up on the screen. (There were a lot of dicks. So. many. dicks.) I saw him pop out of the crowd a few meters down the block but disappear back in. I sighed and got out of my car to find him and drag him back so we could leave. I had done two shifts and attended two shows. It had been a long day.

As I did this, I saw Rhea coming toward me in the sidewalk. I froze. She was with a few other comics, some of whom I had managed at shows earlier in the week. For a single second, I thought to not bother her. However, my persistence for self-satisfaction told me that I should just say something to her in this small opportunity that I had or I would regret it forever.

“Rhea!” I squeaked as she neared me on the sidewalk, way too excitedly. She focused on me and looked at me with puzzlement, but not unkindly. I continued. “You don’t know me, but I just wanted to tell you that you inspired me to start doing comedy.” Her face changed from confusion to a warm smile, and somehow our palms found their way into a handshake. She genuinely expressed gratitude for me telling her that, and we parted ways into a cool Portland night.

After she left, I realized that within our brief exchange, I had accidentally omitted telling her my name. However, if in the future sometime I am very lucky, I am hopeful that I will be able to tell it to her then.

Thank you, Bridgetown.

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