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Howard Sherman: Ruthie Ann Miles tragedy reminds us that theatre pulls together to support its own

Ruthie Ann Miles in The King and I. Photo: Paul Kolnik Ruthie Ann Miles in The King and I. Photo: Paul Kolnik
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In a world filled with tragedies, those that touch us most are inevitably the ones that come closest to our own lives. For the New York theatre community, this was brought home all too vividly on Monday when a car drove through a red light and struck two mothers and their children as they made their way over a crosswalk. Two children were killed. The mothers, one pregnant, were hospitalised in critical condition.

One of the mothers, Ruthie Ann Blumenstein, is better known as Ruthie Ann Miles. A theatre veteran, acclaimed for originating the role of Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love, won the Tony Award for featured actress in a musical in 2015 for her performance as Lady Thiang in The King and I. She is scheduled to repeat the role in London in June. Her four-year-old daughter Abigail was one of the two children killed.

News of the tragedy spread across the theatre community late on Monday, accelerated by social media, where the expressions of profound sympathy and pain cascaded across Facebook feeds of those in the field. Miles’ friend Lauren Lew, who lost her one-year-old son Joshua and who does not appear to work in the industry, was remembered in many of the messages.

By Tuesday, accounts had been set up on the GoFundMe website to raise money to support both families through the tragedy. While nothing will ever replace the lives lost, and the long-term impact on the health of the mothers is not yet known, the outpouring of support was considerable. The page for the Blumenstein family, set up with a goal of $5,000, had exceeded $325,000 in donations less than two days after the accident; the page for the Lews, with the same modest goal, was over $160,000.

The disparity between the two no doubt derives from Miles’ recognition, and from the extraordinary network that being a part of the theatre provides. But that should not be construed as single-mindedness by the theatre community, since countless messages shared links to both pages and both families were on the minds of those horrified by the tragedy.

There have been more than 6,500 donations for Miles, including recognisable names from the theatre and beyond, and some of those same names could be spotted on Lew’s page as well. I am continually reminded of the generosity of the theatre community, though rarely as concretely as seeing their names and donation amounts scrolling across a computer screen.

This personal philanthropy, this unending kindness, is evident in support for the myriad creative events sponsored by the largest theatre charities, The Actors Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, which raise millions of dollars annually, fuelled by the contributions of time and creativity from every corner of the field.

That charity extends to artists donating their time to the very companies that employ them, with benefit performances dotting the calendar weekly, taking place in venues from Broadway houses to the intimate club 54 Below.

Abigail and Joshua are irreplaceable, and even those who didn’t know either family, or had never seen Miles on stage, were surely horrified by the tragedy, which will echo through those families and the lives of all they touch for many years.

But the outpouring of support and sentiment is yet again a reminder of the kinds of bonds that are formed by theatre, between company members, ever-shifting and ever-connecting, and between shows and audiences – the deep human connection afforded by live performance.

Moments like these show that talk of a “theatre family” is clearly no empty aphorism. We pull together to help our own and those who share their lives away from the stage.

This week in US theatre

Already seen in London at the Royal Court, The Fall, from the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Capetown, reaches New York this week. The production, about student activists working to remove a colonialist statue from their campus, opens on Monday at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, which previously hosted the company’s production of Yael Farber’s Mies Julie in 2012.

Admissions is the newest play from Joshua Harmon, opening on Monday under the direction of Daniel Aukin at Lincoln Center Theater. It contrasts the efforts of a white prep school staff to bring diversity to their campus, even as one of the staff works to gain admittance for her own child to an elite Ivy League school.

The laid-back, good-time songs of Jimmy Buffet are the latest to be deployed in a jukebox musical, with Escape to Margaritaville placing Buffet’s significant catalogue of hits into an original story of tropical revels by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley. Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony for last season’s Come from Away, directs the production, opening on Broadway on Thursday.

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