After 140 Years, The Actors Fund Changes Its Name And Expands Its Services

In 1882, theatre impresario A.M. Palmer founded an organization to help down-on-their-luck actors. At that time, theaterfolk were an even less privileged class than they are now, and Abraham Lincoln’s recent assassination at a theatre, by an actor, certainly didn’t help their reputation. The word itself, “actor,” meant something different, too: it encompassed essentially anyone who worked in the entertainment industry, such as it was.

A.M. Palmer’s so-dubbed Actors Fund, then, served not just onstage performers, but arts workers of all kinds. And as theatre, and later cinema, shed its ill repute and moved into the mainstream, the Fund expanded in tow. It now manages over $139,000,000 in assets, including multiple housing complexes on both coasts, making it one of the largest arts support organizations in the country.

“It’s for everyone working in entertainment,” says current President Joe Benincasa. “Whether they’re backstage, front of house, on the stage, in the studio. And it’s always been that.”

But as culture changed, so too did language, and in the years since Booth and Lincoln’s fateful encounter, the Fund was saddled with a growing identity crisis – one that muddled communication to both supporters and workers who could benefit from its services.

“There was a lot of equity in that name,” says actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who has served as the Fund’s chairman since 2004. “But it was also an issue, because we always have to follow it up with, ‘It’s not just for actors!” Even to people in our industry who should know better.”

Now, 140 years after its founding – and two years deep into a pandemic that has uniquely crippled the arts – the Fund has adapted yet again. As of Monday evening, The Actors Fund is no more: it is now The Entertainment Community Fund.

“It’s an act of gratitude to all of those people and organizations that came forward during the pandemic,” Stokes says of the relief efforts during the last two years. “From the unions to TikTok, and other industries that realized the importance of our industry to their business. It’s our way to say, ‘Thank you. This is in indeed The Entertainment Community Fund. It is for all of us.’”

Until 2020, America’s arts and cultural sector encompassed 5 million workers, and accounted for 4.5% of the country’s GDP – more than either agriculture or transportation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Broadway alone supported almost 100,000 jobs in New York, from carpenters to casting directors. Many of those jobs have returned, but live entertainment is far from recovered.

“These are long-term problems,” Stokes says. “People are still hurting. Insurance, for example. For many who work in television, film, theater, your insurance is predicated on weeks worked in the previous year. People need substance abuse counseling. A lot of people are still dealing with long COVID issues, especially those who, like me, got that Delta variant.”

The Fund has historically provided services to meet many of these needs, including direct financial aid, housing, and mental health support. When the pandemic began, those needs first spiked, then exploded.

“Typically we help 20,000 people in a year,” says Benincasa. “Over the pandemic we’ve helped 68,000 people. A lot of that is counseling, group sessions, and the like. But 17,000 people got direct financial assistance. And that’s also a portal. People call us and say, ‘I can’t pay the rent. I can’t buy food.’ And that gets them into our social services system, so we can figure out what else they need, too.”

Since 2020, the Fund has provided $26.8 million in direct financial assistance, a 66% increase from the two years prior. It made counseling services fully remotely accessible, which expanded its reach well beyond the two coasts. And as Stokes mentioned, it partnered with other organizations to raise funds and awareness of the specific pain inflicted on arts workers. For example, a performance of the crowd-sourced TikTok musical Ratatouille became the most successful fundraiser in the Fund’s history.

Now that much of the industry is up and running, if still in recovery, the Fund is looking ahead. Demand for financial assistance has been dropping, says Benincasa, while demand for counseling and social services has risen. The goal is to triple the number of people helped over the next five years, both by augmenting remote-access services, and expanding affordable housing facilities, including a new $125 million complex in Los Angeles.

Regardless of how the next wave of the pandemic plays out, the Fund’s focus will remain, as it always has, on meeting people where their needs are. Grey’s Anatomy star Chandra Wilson knows this as well as anyone.

“I went broke around ’92, in New York,” she says over the phone from Los Angeles. “And I was facing my first eviction. Trying to be a working actor. Just green as grass. And [the stage union] Actors’ Equity referred me to the Actors Fund, and they were able to help me out for that next month’s rent, get my priorities together and help me figure out how to live as a functioning adult.”

Thirty years and four Emmy nominations later, Wilson has remained a major advocate. She now sits on the Fund’s board of trustees and its Western Council, working with Los Angeles to support workers in Hollywood and beyond, having recently presided over the groundbreaking of the new LA housing complex.

“It’s such a source of pride for me, to be able to pay it forward,” she says. “It meant so much to get that grant in ‘92. It was life-saving. And now I’m able to say, ‘We are still here, and the services that we have been providing are still here, and just as valuable. And they’re for everyone. Not just actors.’”

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