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D.C.-Area Theater Community Rallies To 'Take Care of Our Own'

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"Taking Care of Our Own" is a new initiative to assisting currently active Washington-area theater professionals in personal emergency situations.
"Taking Care of Our Own" is a new initiative to assisting currently active Washington-area theater professionals in personal emergency situations.

Ted van Griethuysen has been an actor for decades.

"I have been one for longer than I care to remark at the moment," he says with a chuckle. "But my friends would know it's about 60 years."

And during those 60 years, van Griethuysen's experienced his share of financial hardships--whether it was coming up short on rent, or getting seriously ill when he lacked health insurance.

And when these hardships cropped up, van Griethuysen often turned to the Actor's Fund: a nationwide organization providing financial and social services to professionals in the entertainment industry.

"They were very kind, very thoughtful," he says. "They didn't make it difficult to get money or anything. So I never forgot that."

The Actor's Fund is headquartered in New York City: the country's most prolific theater town. And though Washington, D.C., is the second most prolific, "we really just felt like there was nothing in Washington where it really supported the theatrical community when they ran in to health problems or medical bills that they just were not expecting," says Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre.

Through the years several of Schaeffer's theater colleagues have run into such problems, like Jane Pesci Townsend, a local actress who died of cancer.

"When she was sick, she had all these bills, and one night we just threw this big 'Give It Up For Jane' at Signature here," Schaeffer recalls. "And we raised over $15,000 to help her with those medical expenses.

"And we just thought, wouldn't it be great to have that for the community?"

So not too long ago, Schaeffer approached Linda Levy Grossman, president and CEO of theatreWashington, the local organization dedicated to promoting Washington-area theaters.

"We got together for lunch," she says. "And he shared the idea. And there wasn't even a pause. I said, 'For sure! Absolutely! This is something that we should be doing and that we must be doing.'"

Schaeffer's brainstorm eventually grew in to a fund called "Taking Care of Our Own."

"Basically, someone in need will call our office, or be able to download the application online, put in what their request is, and then based on what funds are available, the advisory panel will decide on what the gift will be," Grossman says.

And it is just that, she says: "a gift."

"Not a loan. There's no need to pay it back."

And that gift isn't just for the theater artists on the stage.

"When I say 'theater artists,' I mean actors, and I mean designers, and I mean directors, and I mean the technicians, and all the company members who contribute to putting that product on the stage," Grossman explains.

And Taking Care of our Own isn't just for medical needs. Grossman says it could be something like "the tree fell on my house" or "I'm flooded."

As Janet Griffin, artistic producer at the Folger Theatre explains: "[It's] something that's catastrophic, unprepared for, and maybe falls just between periods of employment."

Griffin is on Taking Care of our Own's advisory panel, and she says the funny thing about theater artists is they often have this "glamorous glow" around them.

"But people don't think of the fact that they don't have a steady paycheck, basically," she says. "And they don't often have a steady place to live. Theater professionals are not just magical people on the stage! They have to pay the electrical bill just like everyone else, and they have accidents and need care."

Taking Care of our Own's coffers have more than $11,000 so far, thanks to online contributions from the community, and to the more than two-dozen theaters participating in "The Bucket Brigade," where bucket-bearing actors solicit donations after the show.

"We did a whole week at Taming of the Shrew," Griffin says. "And the actors were so excited about participating, and standing by the door. And there was a little bit of a competition as to which one raised the most money that night, so it was a very positive experience!"

She hopes Taking Care of our Own's next fundraising push will be equally positive. On Aug. 20, at Signature Theatre, Eric Schaeffer is directing a variety show called "The Summer Hummer."

It'll be a song-and-dance extravaganza modeled after "Broadway Bares," New York's annual burlesque benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Schaeffer describes D.C.'s version as a bit "risqué."

"Some people will be stripping for money," he says. "So that actually people come and just throw money at the stage. So it will be a fun night. But hopefully what it's going to do is also kick off the program and really raise awareness."

Because that's really what it's all about, says theatreWashington's Linda Levy Grossman: raising awareness of Washington's theater artists, and not just what they need... but what they give.

"The work that they put on our stages lights up our town. It provides a level of human connectivity that we don't have in any other way," she says.

And after 60-some years of doing his part to provide that connectivity, actor Ted van Griethuysen says he's thrilled D.C., is starting a sort of Actors Fund of its own.

"Every time we do a show, for the opening night, I make a contribution to the Actors Fund," he says. "And in some ways I don't quite know why it means so much to me, except it was there when I needed it.

Of course, now that Taking Care of our Own will be there when folks need it here in the District, perhaps a brand new opening-night tradition will be born.

[Music: "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Bebo Valdes/Federico Britos from We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together]

Photos: Take Care of Our Own

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