Help for Theater People: New Program to Award Grants of up to $500 to Artists, Designers and Technicians

Jake Walker, actor and executive director of the Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City.

The COVID-19 has hurt all aspects of the economy since March, and theater professionals are among those hit the hardest. Some actors, stage managers and designers saw a year’s worth of paying jobs vanish as theater companies were forced to cancel shows and entire seasons. 

But now theater people in the Kansas City area are getting a little help.  They are able to apply for $500 grants through a program administered by the nonprofit Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City with money from the Theater League endowment. It represents a marriage of one freshly minted not-for-profit organization — the community theater fund — and the venerable Theater League, a group that was founded by Mark Edelman in the ’70s. Once a producing/presenting organization that booked touring musicals into venues in Kansas City and other cities across the country, the league  is now mainly a philanthropic organization that assists medium-sized theater companies in the Kansas City area. 

The applicants must be professional actors, stage managers, designers or technicians who reside in the Kansas City area, according to the guidelines.  The first grants are expected to be issued in January.

The Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City came into existence in August, said actor Jake Walker, who serves as the group’s executive director. In short order the organization organized a food bank to assist theater families. 

Walker knew about similar efforts in other cities and had considered organizing a support group in Kansas City. Then, suddenly events accelerated. 

“Then the pandemic hit and I had all this time and I also had a lot of help from my circle of friends when I lost all my jobs this year,” Walker said. “So I thought this was the perfect time to pull the trigger.”

In addition to Walker, the organization is guided by a four-member executive board and a six-member board of directors. 

“Then, out of the blue, Mark Edelman contacted us,” Walker said. “He had heard about us through Facebook and the grapevine and asked if we thought we could assemble a list of theater professionals who would benefit from (support).”

Walker said the theatre fund began accepting applications from potential grant recipients. Once approved, they are passed on to Theater League, where Edelman will review them and issue checks. The process began with the group sending application forms to local theater companies. The forms are also available on the theater fund’s website.

“Our goal and Mark’s as well (is to) make it really easy and give the money to as many people as possible,” Walker said.

Each application is reviewed with certain basic questions in mind: what was the applicant’s level of income and what was their level of need. For example, a member of Actors Equity, the union for actors and stage managers, might have another full-time career, in which case their need would be less immediate than the individual with no outside income.

“We’re scoring applications every day just so we don’t fall behind,” Walker said. “Alexandria Washington, our board president, sends out about 20 applications to the committee per day.”

As soon as the group has about 150 approved applications, they will be forwarded to Edelman. “He’ll take it from there and send out some checks,’’ Walker said. 

Pressed to offer himself as an example of the challenges faced by professional actors during the pandemic, Walker broke it down: “I had two contracts that I had signed and money that was supposed to be part of my income this year totally disappeared, and that was about $15,000.” The challenge for actors is acute because “as an actor you usually go show-to-show and you don’t book a whole season of gigs in one day. Some of these people (grant applicants) had full seasons. It’s stunning to read what this has done to them in application after application.”

Another challenge concerns health insurance. To be covered by the union’s health insurance plan, actors are required to work a specific number of weeks each year. No work equals no insurance.

“My insurance is gone,” Walker said. “It ran out. I’m going to look into the Affordable Care Act market place and see if there’s something for me out there.”

Edelman, whose organization distributes money and services to a range of theater groups, earlier this year sent 200 Price Chopper gift cards worth $100 each to unemployed theater artists recommended by individual theater companies. 

“The thing that wasn’t happening that kind of bothered us that while we were continuing to contribute to the welfare of the institutions we thought were important, the people getting left out were the key players, the artists who were no longer working,” Edelman said. 

Theater League increased grants already distributed to theater companies by 50 percent, Edelman said. He admitted to being a bit overly optimistic when his organization bought 10,000 face masks, 250 pump bottles and 40 gallons of 80 percent alcohol hand gel. But much of the material has been given to local theater groups, including four sprayers used to disinfect seating areas. 

With a vaccine now slowly making its way through the population, Edelman was guardedly optimistic about the odds of theater-going making a comeback in the coming year.

“Remember, the vaccine is in theory going to older people at first, and that means theatergoers,” Edelman said. “You take a crowd of theater people and they’re going to be a safer group than, say, people at a Trump rally.”

For more information on the Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City, visit www.theatrefundkc.org.

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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