Update: As of 7:25 p.m. Wednesday, the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund has raised $13,015 and made many, many more meals. Its original goal was $10,000. Its new goal is $15,000. Thanks, Atlanta.
This is the story of the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund, a volunteer group established last Friday (March 13), when it became clear that coronavirus would stall Atlanta theaters along with the rest of the city and nation. Two days later, the fund’s first brigade of volunteers cooked and delivered meals to stranded colleagues.
It’s also the story of Rob Brooksher, a theatrical sound engineer/designer who found himself back in Atlanta between gigs — a national tour of Million Dollar Quartet and a cruise-ship contract that was canceled last week. He’s seen the chemistry between actors onstage. He’s noticed how a great backup band can elevate a vocalist, electrify an audience and cause backstage crew members to bop to the music. And he’s seen the power of communal storytelling.
“I truly believe our Atlanta arts community is facing an existential threat at a scale beyond anything I’ve seen and increasing at a terrifying rate,” says Brooksher, 28. “I don’t believe ‘the show must go on’ is going to be an appropriate response to this outbreak because this transcends any human efforts beyond social distancing.”
First, some background.
On March 13, the Alliance Theatre canceled the rest of its 2020–21 season, with three shows remaining, plus its inaugural Festival of New Plays reading series. Within the next four days, 18 more nonprofit professional companies postponed or canceled shows. That list ranges from 7 Stages to Theatrical Outfit, and includes Actor’s Express, Arís Theatre, Atlanta Lyric Theatre, Aurora Theatre, the Center for Puppetry Arts, City Springs Theatre Company, Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Horizon Theatre Company, Out Front Theatre Company, Serenbe Playhouse, Stage Door Players, Synchronicity Theatre, Theatre Buford, Théâtre du Rêve and True Colors Theatre Company.
For each production, each company hires actors; playwrights; directors; stage managers; production managers; sound, set, costume, lighting and props designers; a technical director; a master electrician; carpenters; dramaturgs; photographers and videographers, and sometimes intimacy directors. Additionally, musicals require musical directors, musicians and choreographers.
A LEGACY OF FOOD DRIVES AND HELPING OTHERS
Brooksher grew up in the small North Georgia town of Clermont (population: 875), where he was rarely alone. He comes from a family that didn’t wait for the Red Cross or any other national organization when neighbors were in need. His grandmother played the organ at the Presbyterian church, where food drives and helping others were regular occurrences. In 2016, such efforts became far more personal.
“I saw my mother battle pancreatic cancer and watched as people we hadn’t seen in years came out of the woodwork to give her time and energy to help her fight,” he says. “They delivered healthy meals to keep her spirits up.”
It’s in that spirit of love and light, Brooksher says, that he knew people would stand together and rise above with an organization like the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund.
Brooksher’s mother, Gail Jones — a high-school theater teacher for more than 20 years and a Georgia Thespians Hall of Fame honoree — died in March 2016. He recalls the extreme acts of kindness that held her up, and he’s appealing publicly now for Atlanta to hold up its often paycheck-to-paycheck theater artists. As of 11 a.m Friday, the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund has raised $8,952 from 112 donors via GoFundMe toward a goal of $10,000. That this has all happened in less than a week is amazing.
These artists often supplement their incomes with part-time jobs, often several at a time. Even under the best of circumstances they can struggle for financial security. When Brooksher learned that two people in Atlanta had tested positive for coronavirus, he went into action.
He partnered with Paul Glaze, 27, an Atlanta actor, musician and theater technician with a background in political organizing. They created the Emergency Fund with a singular goal: to cook and deliver nutritious meals to artists in need.
Most of the volunteers are on the younger side, Brooksher says, but James Weis — a generous donor who sits on several boards of directors and is vice chair of the Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre board — doesn’t fall into that demographic. He’s cooked on multiple days and reached out to his network to help raise thousands of dollars.
In its first five days, the fund raised more than $6,000, and prepared and delivered more than 300 meals to home-bound or ill artists from all disciplines. A volunteer network of more than 2,000 artists — including out-of-work caterers, bartenders and chefs — formed. They’ve become cooks, food and supply deliverers, and faith and community support ambassadors. They’ve made emergency supply runs for people with diabetes, compromised immune systems and other health needs in an ever-expanding outreach effort.
As the Relief Fund’s Facebook page evolves, the online community has become a repository for job listings, offers of free meal coupons and tips on where to find toilet paper, as well as pictures and videos of pets. Less-direct support has come in the form of financial aid, livestreamed meditation and prayer sessions, and 30-minute FaceTime visits with one of six volunteers. The relief effort wants to remind out-of-work artists that they’re not alone.
“Humans are social creatures,” Brooksher says. “We’re really not designed for isolation. We’re seeing a closed-loop system of people who need help and are volunteering to help people where they are.”
HOW IT WORKS
Those receiving the chili and rice, veggies, orange juice and more are mostly theater folk, Brooksher says, but as the group gains traction, it’s been contacted by individuals in the film industry and others. It has a priority system that follows certain guidelines: first priority — the elderly and anyone with a pre-existing condition that makes it inadvisable to leave home; second priority — anyone out of work with dependents at home. Remaining clients are served based on how they characterize their need — urgent (delivery in one–two days) or priority (deliver in three–five days) and so on.
While prepping and cooking the food, the group follows USDA guidelines, Brooksher says. The virus isn’t spread via food, so volunteers take the necessary, normal food sanitation and safety precautions, working from their “HQ” in a South Atlanta home. They have separate cooking times for meals with meat and those that are vegetarian, and do about 80/20 percent vegan to non-vegan meals for cost and community-need reasons.
All donations — online and otherwise — go toward purchasing food supplies for a frozen-meal-prep volunteer group that creates a meal train that delivers nutritious food and supplies to the doorstep of artists in quarantine or financial need at this unprecedented time; purchasing such essentials as pain medication, fever reducers, electrolytes, etc.; and gas reimbursements for volunteers who deliver the food.
“Paul has this great philosophy,” Brooksher says. “There’s not a person in this country who does not consume art in one way or another. And as people spend unexpected time at home — binge-watching films and television, or listening to their favorite music — that’s all created by artists just like us. Think about that the next time you’re watching Netflix with your family, and consider donating to local artists.”
In times like these, when we are separated by necessity, ArtsATL is needed more than ever. Please consider a donation so we can continue to highlight Atlanta’s creative community during this unprecedented period.