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No work, lots of stress, but theater artists are getting some help paying their bills

Erica Spyres is one of the Boston theater artists who have helped raise money for the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund with a "CARE-oke" performance on Facebook.
Erica Spyres is one of the Boston theater artists who have helped raise money for the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund with a "CARE-oke" performance on Facebook.TCBF

Michael Clark Wonson had a busy spring and summer season booked. The award-winning lighting designer and performer had about 15 shows, 10 weddings, and several corporate event commitments either ready to go or in the works.

“And then my career evaporated in front of my eyes,” he says.

Like many other theater artists, Wonson turned to the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund for help, receiving a modest grant to help him meet essential bills, including rent.

“Performing artists and the community of workers that support them work in the gig economy,” Wonson says. “We work paycheck to paycheck, building momentum and our reputation through each work we create. I’ve spent 10 years building that momentum.”

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The fund has been around for more than two decades, but board president Amy Spalletta says before the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit provided support for just a handful of individuals each year. Catastrophic events made up the bulk of the applications the 14-member, all-volunteer board evaluated, but since mid-March, when everything shut down, the group has already allocated more than $100,000, providing 40 people and 21 organizations with grants between $500 and $2,500. Although the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund promises a response within 30 days, Spalletta says the group has been able to make decisions and provide checks within one or two weeks.

“Our focus has been in individuals,” says Spalletta, “but we have an application for organizations, too. With the cancellation of spring fund-raisers, as well as productions, many organizations have furloughed staff or only been able to provide half of the stipends promised to artists."

Wonson says it was difficult to reach out for help, but the kindness he was shown by the board members was as valuable as the check.

“[Board member] Karen Perlow checked in on me afterward,” he says. “I felt seen by my community. They know who I am. That is powerful.”

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Wonson was so grateful that a group he belongs to, Boston Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, organized a fund-raiser for the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund, enlisting the owners of Club Café, and many cabaret artists who perform in the Club’s Napoleon Room, for an evening called “There’s No Place Like Home.”

The fund receives support through the Boston Theater Marathon, and from an annual collection where performers pass a hat at the end of performances throughout the month of May. Since the pandemic, Spalletta says there has been an increase in donations, but it has not kept up with demand. This year, the Playwrights Platform Festival of New Plays (www.playwrightsplatform.org) will direct viewers to donate to TCBF, and last month the fund kicked off “CARE-oke,” in which performers from the Boston theater community are challenged to post videos of themselves performing a song or monologue on Tuesdays and Fridays. Kathy St. George, Robert Saoud, Sam and Tyler Simahk, and Erica Spyres have performed so far, with more to come. Viewers are asked to donate at www.tcbf.org.

This week, however, TCBF has suspended its direct fund-raising efforts and asking supporters to turn their attention to organizations that support Black Lives Matter. “As storytellers, our choice is to either uphold or help to dismantle the underlying injustices we see in the world,” it says on its website. "We encourage all members of the Boston theater community to take action and show your support for our black and POC friends and colleagues by uplifting their voices now and in our rehearsal rooms, production meetings, offices and performance spaces.”

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Do try this at home

Audience participation can strike fear in hearts of many theatergoers, but the judgment-free world of Zoom theater gatherings can create a safe space for shy audience members.

Play at Home is a growing collection of theater companies across the country who are commissioning short plays and making the scripts available on the website www.playathome.org. The idea is to provide a modest stipend of $500 to a playwright who writes a short play in three to five days. The script is then made available for free, and individuals and families are encouraged to film themselves reading or performing the play and to submit their performance to the website.

“I loved this idea,” says Courtney O’Connor, artistic director at the Lyric Stage Company. “Restaurants have been putting kits together for patrons to make at home. Why not give audiences the materials to perform at home?”

The Lyric commissioned Sam Hamashima, most recently seen in “Pacific Overtures,” to write “Garden State,” a play about a Queen Bee who must find her way home after being trapped in a glass jar.

“The only criteria was that the play should bring a lot of joy,” says O’Connor, “and we knew Sam would bring joy to the writing.”

None of the theater companies edits the scripts; they simply send them to Play at Home, agreeing only to never produce the play. To date, 100 playwrights have received commissions, in just six weeks, and the plays have been downloaded more than 33,200 times.

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“The range of plays and playwrights is amazing, and whether people just read them for their terrific stories or act them out, it’s a wonderful opportunity to hear these voices.”

Meanwhile, Apollinaire Theatre Company, in Chelsea, is in its 12th week of reading films and plays scripts Thursday through Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons in Apollinaire at Home. Everyone who Zooms in is invited to take on a role. Scripts are available to download through a link on the Apollinaire website, and roles are handed out a few minutes before the readings begin, with everyone who shows up getting a chance to read.

“We consistently have about 20 to 24 people participating, but a high of 69,” says Danielle Fauteux Jacques, the company’s founder and artistic director. “We’ve had people participating from Argentina, the UK, Seattle, and Colorado.”

Volunteer hosts keep track of who wants to play which part and hand out roles. Andrea Lyman, a busy actress who lost work when the locally filmed Disney movie “Godmothered” and an HBO pilot for a Julia Child show were canceled in the space of 24 hours, says she was intrigued. “Handing out the parts has been like the reverse of a Yankee swap,” she says. “If your name is pulled from the hat earlier, you have the chance to choose from many roles, but there are fewer options as the picking goes on.”

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Choosing the scripts has also been challenging, since they need to be in the public domain and easy to download, which means the titles are drawn from a predominantly white male canon.

“We recently read ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Jaws,’” says Lyman, “and they were really racist and sexist. That does provide fodder for discussion after the reading.”