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Not just for Christmas: how theatre charities are supporting the industry

Ben Forster, Judi Dench, Samantha Bond, Maggie Smith and Tamzin Outhwaite at Acting for Others’ Presidential Awards 2017. The umbrella organisation is comprised of 15 theatrical charities. Photo: Mark Lomas Ben Forster, Judi Dench, Samantha Bond, Maggie Smith and Tamzin Outhwaite at Acting for Others’ Presidential Awards 2017. The umbrella organisation is comprised of 15 theatrical charities. Photo: Mark Lomas
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Although this time of year is most associated with giving, numerous charitable organisations operate all year round. John Byrne explains how their vital work helps actors and theatre workers nationwide

With the season of goodwill in full swing, charity work including fundraising and volunteering is enjoying its usual yuletide profile boost.

On a less festive but sadly factual note, the low earnings and unsocial hours that are part and parcel of theatrical work for many, as well as the ever-present concern that an unexpected illness or injury might suddenly put paid to that work altogether, mean much greater awareness is needed among performers and technicians alike of the organisations that can offer support throughout the year, not just at Christmas.

Perhaps partly because of the Dickensian flavour that is a staple of many festive shows and concerts at this time of the year, charities such as the Actors’ Benevolent Fund often find themselves fighting the misconception that their activities exclusively help older and retired members of the profession. Grants and administrative assistant Kirsty Harrod says this is not the full story: “Currently, our youngest beneficiary is in their 20s, and the eldest in their 90s. I recently had a call from a young actor who had torn a ligament in his knee while performing in a musical. We’d been supporting him for six months during his recovery by giving him a weekly grant and help with applying for benefits. He has since landed roles in the West End and in the new Mamma Mia! film.’’

Acting for Others is probably best known in and outside of the profession for its annual bucket collections in theatres throughout the UK. Each collection is traditionally kicked off by a rousing appeal from the stage to the audience by cast members of the participating show.

Originally the brainchild of Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward and Richard Attenborough, Acting for Others was established as an umbrella organisation for theatrical charities to fundraise without having to compete with each other. The organisation, for which The Stage is a media partner, comprises 15 separate charities that collectively dispense more than £2 million to hundreds of people every year. Members include the Grand Order of Water Rats and the Actors’ Children’s Trust, as well as the Theatrical Guild, which supports members who work backstage and front of house.

The Grand Order of Water Rats began in 1889, when a small group of successful music hall performers decided to donate the winnings from their racing syndicate to help struggling colleagues. The group’s trotting pony was caught in a rainstorm and likened to a water rat, hence the name.

Mike Martin, secretary to the trustees, stresses that far from being an ‘old boys’ network’, the Water Rats accepts new members from all branches of showbusiness and recently donated £10,000 to create a music therapy programme at the Evelina Children’s Hospital.

The Actors’ Children’s Trust focuses its support on parents. Robert Ashby explains: “Most of our actor-parents are working, but it’s the appalling low pay that drives so many them out of the profession they love. Today I heard from a widower with two young daughters struggling with bills and a council tax court order, a mother with no support despite severe bowel disease, an actor needing crisis counselling for her son, and, on a brighter note, a student who can’t believe he got into drama school.”

Adam Bambrough, the Theatrical Guild’s office manager, says workers in all types of theatre employment can find themselves in a difficult situation unexpectedly. “We recently helped a London-based box office worker with young children whose husband walked out, leaving her to pay the bills. We gave her a one-off grant to cover the cost of returning to the North, where she has family support, a deposit and initial rent on a new flat, as well as the purchase of basic household goods.”

While many theatrical charities are driven by people within the profession, the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine grew from the desire of medical professionals to support the people whose work they were enjoying as audience members. “Performers can run into career-threatening health problems that are often preventable, and can be solved much more easily with specialist medical input early on,’’ says information officer Dan Hayhurst.

“BAPAM was set up to help performers and develop performing arts medicine as a specialism for health professionals. We recently supported an actor who was unable to return to work after experiencing severe bullying during her last contract. She came to talk this through with a BAPAM doctor. We helped her find a therapist specialising in this area and supported her in finding help to fund treatment.’’

In common with all of the charities interviewed, BAPAM is grateful when supporters within the industry organise fundraising performances or other events but Hayhurst says: “This kind of event is a great way to help us get our message out and spread the word. Most people who are helped by BAPAM hear about us from a colleague or friend.’’

The last word should go to Acting for Others chairman Stephen Waley-Cohen, who sums up the ‘pay it forward’ nature of supporting industry charities this way: “Every performer who is asked to make a speech from the stage, shake a bucket front of house or help with the collections should do so enthusiastically. One day they – or one of their friends – may need the support this makes possible.’’

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