A few years ago, I was sitting in a small intimate theater in Lakewood silently waiting for a show to begin. I was behind a couple who ran another theater company across town and they knew me as a longtime local art journalist.
The woman turned in her seat and asked, “Hey, John, what do you know about this new Denver Actors Fund I’ve heard about?”
I chuckled a little, thinking he might be kindly teasing me. After all, for several years I had been regularly pestering this same couple – and anyone else I could think of pestering – to join the growing efforts of my small grassroots nonprofit to help local theater artists pay their medical bills. I mean, when I go, I talk to the Denver Actors Fund people like normal people talk about their babies and not-so-normal people like me talk about our cats and sunflowers.
But her blank stare made it clear that if she was joking, she wasn’t involved in the same joke as her.
So I clumsily explained that, er, er, aw … actually, I was the one who started the DAF in 2013. And I’ll never forget his answer. It was the first time I had heard anyone say the expression “Pshaw”. Here’s what he said … “Pshaw!”
Followed by an immediate: “Oh, be serious, John!”
After putting my ownership claim a little more energetically, he admitted with skepticism the remote possibility that I … the first theater critic? … perhaps he could have helped start a fund that, as of last week, has now paid $ 1 million in medical bills incurred by Colorado theater performers on and off stage.
But the curious reporter in me must have known. “Why is it so surprising to you?” I asked. And without missing a beat, he fired the verbal arrow into my heart with the same efficiency as an Olympic archer: “You just don’t seem like the type,” he said.
And … curtain.
Now, I can absolutely see how 12 years as a daily theater critic could make any jaundiced observer think that my livelihood must definitely be nothing more than the collective blood and self-esteem of the entire creative community of Colorado. I don’t come out as a benefactor in person. I can be brusque in conversation and totally intolerant of feelings. My humor often escapes the world at large (one of two reasons why the working title of my memoir is “Nobody Catches Me!”). In my years as a critic, now a decade behind me, readers have been quick to interpret my holding the theatrical community at a high critical level as a call to arms. I keep threatening to turn my readers’ most vitriolic correspondence into “Hate Mail! The musical! “
(It will be a comedy, I promise: the critic eventually dies.)
But it turns out that, in fact, I was not raised by wolves, but rather by human parents who saw service as our daily responsibility. My father coached men’s and women’s sports teams and used his position as Denver Post sports writer to start an annual youth golf tournament at City Park GC that gave hundreds of inner city kids the rare opportunity to try golf. competitive.
When I was 10, my working mother of eight ran for Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder. As a woman in the 1970s and a Democrat in a heavily Republican county, she knew she had no chance of winning. But she saw it as her duty to run, and while I’m not sure what a county clerk actually records, I’m still a little traumatized that she didn’t get every single vote. The point is, my parents believed that service was our normal civic obligation.
I think my experience as a journalist has actually put me in the perfect place to take the lead in setting up a fund to help local artists with their sudden situational medical needs. We are not like normal people who are often immobilized when terrible things happen. Journalists are trained to expect the unexpected to happen every day. When it inevitably does, we have a job to do and we do it.
In 2013, many unexpected terrible things were happening to local theater artists. Shelly Bordas, a single mother nearing the end of her four-year battle with cancer, just wanted to live long enough to take her son on a Disney cruise for her fourth birthday.
An actor, director and set designer (all a boy) underwent outpatient shoulder surgery that was so routine that it took place while sitting in a chair. But the procedure was so unsuccessful that it left Robert Michael Sanders without full use of his fingers. Never again offer a firm handshake, wield a hammer, or play the guitar. “It’s been 30 years of working on one thing, becoming skilled and successful at it, and then just seeing it taken away from you forever,” Sanders said. “This is an indescribable loss.”
Then there was the local playwright who had a temporary colostomy bag applied after colon surgery. He was an Army veteran who had made two combat trips, but his military benefits were exhausted. As he was being taken to the operating room for the second surgery that would take his bag away and give him his life back, someone from the billing department ran in and stopped the procedure because he still owed money for the first surgery.
As fate would have it, at the time I was recovering from the colostomy operation. I had left the Denver Post just a few days before landing in the ER and found myself with the time and the influence to set up a fund, with the help of local actor and attorney Christopher Boeckx. A few months later, we issued our first check: $ 240 to an actor who couldn’t work after being hit by a car while crossing the street.
We tend to think of all artists, from Hollywood to Holyoke, as celebrities who lead enchanting and incredibly fascinating lives. But in Colorado, nearly all artists who choose the creative life are essentially choosing to strive for our enjoyment, edification, and enlightenment. They tend to work part-time or do jobs that offer flexible hours but no benefits. The health system is ready for everyone, but artists who are committed to walking the tightrope of everyday life without a safety net are especially vulnerable when the worst happens. And the worst, in the end, happens to everyone.
When we crossed the million dollar mark last week, a reporter asked me if I had any stories that were particularly meaningful to me. It’s hard to answer because we now have over 500 meaningful stories to choose from.
Like the beloved actor who died of cancer 11 days after the birth of his second daughter. Or the pregnant mother who was ordered bed rest for the last six weeks of her pregnancy – and during that time, her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery to remove a tumor without that his mother was present. (Everyone recovered and after the baby’s eight days in the ICU, we paid the $ 5,200 bill.)
There was the heartbreaking story of the woman whose seemingly healthy 13-month-old son died inexplicably hours after he started showing signs of a mild cold. We helped by paying for the cruellest of all medical bills: the burial of his son. Or the shocking story of the woman who learned at 8 months of pregnancy that her daughter had died in her womb. To increase her misery, she had to be induced to give birth. And after all that she got hit with a $ 5,000 bill, which we paid.
We bought wheelchairs, hearing aids, oxygen cylinders and more. Of particular delight, I once went shopping at Victoria’s Secret with a prop designer who needed a bra to support her new breast implants (word of him) after breast cancer surgery.
The money we sent changed your life. It freed people in need of medical debt in which they could have languished for years. But we have also provided affordable mental health care through a partnership with the Maria Droste Counseling Center, free emergency dental care through Dr. Brian Kelly of Hakala Dentistry, free teledoctor through Hippo Health, and our small army of over 100 volunteers provided hands-on, neighborhood assistance ranging from rides and grocery deliveries to snow shoveling to old-fashioned personal companionship.
DAF is a volunteer-only organization that raised its first million dollars largely through grassroots help from local theater companies, youth groups and individual artists who organize cabaret concerts on our behalf. One of these is happening on Monday (August 15), when Beth Malone, a Colorado native, a television and theater star who was nominated for a Tony Award for “Fun Home”, performs her “Thanks a Million” concert at Candlelight. Dinner at the theater in Johnstown.
She is doing this, in part, because her 29-year-old cousin, a longtime local stage manager, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer late last year and underwent chemo and numerous surgeries that left her. , yes, a temporary colostomy pouch. It all comes back, apparently, to colostomy bags and service. Which is really just an opportunity to show our best selves.
(Even if no one believes it was you.)