Trying to help the arts during the pandemic

Actor Sterling K. Brown is participating in a virtual hangout fundraiser to benefit the St. Louis Actors Studio. Photos:  Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

If you’ve ever dreamed of hanging out with A-list actors Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) or Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”), now’s your big chance. And, as an added bonus, you’d also be helping small professional theater companies in the process.

The Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund was an idea hatched by William Roth, founder and artistic director of the St. Louis Actors’ Studio (STLAS), located in the Central West End. Forced to shut down his 99-seat Gaslight Theater and forgo much-needed revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic, Roth decided to take action.

“We were immediately told by the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council that our funding would be half of what it was before and that a lot of grantees might not get anything,” said Roth, whose family belongs to Central Reform Congregation. “Our budget is tiny (under $200,000) and while we have a motivated subscriber list, they can’t sustain us by themselves nor can I ask them to do so.”

Roth points out that small theaters such as his are not in line for major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and that existing tax dollars earmarked for the arts are quickly vanishing. Determined not to be a casualty of the pandemic, Roth reached out to his network who in turn helped him enlist the cooperation of well-known celebrities with ties to St. Louis. They all agreed to take part in a 20-minute virtual hangout with a winner who donated to the sustainment fund. 

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Here’s how it works: By donating $75 to the fund, participants automatically receive 50 chances to win. The more a person donates, the better the chances for winning. Participants do not get to choose which celebrity they will Zoom with — each winner’s name will be randomly selected, most likely on Facebook Live, and then matched with a celebrity, the order of which will be pre-determined.

In addition to Hamm, who graduated from John Burroughs School, and Brown, an alumnus of MICDS, the other celebs are:

• Actor Sam McMurray, who attended Washington University and is best known for his roles on TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” and “The King of Queens.”

• Writer Beau Willimon, a John Burroughs graduate who helped develop the American version of “House of Cards” and served as its showrunner. He most recently wrote the screenplay for “Mary Queen of Scotts.”

• Writer and director Cory Finley, who also attended Burroughs and wrote and directed the film “Thoroughbreds” and directed “Bad Education.”

• Writer and director Neil LaBute, who hosts his “LaBute New Theater Festival” at STLAS’ Gaslight Theater each fall in New York periodically. He also helmed films such as “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends & Neighbors” and “The Shape of Things.”

Roth explains that in the 14 years since he started Actors’ Studio, he’s been fairly ambitious in reaching out to well-known actors with ties to the area. 

“We were going to do (“One Flew Over the) Cuckoo’s Nest” and I tried to get Jon Hamm to play McMurphy,” he said. “But usually what you run into are very willing artists and very unwilling agents. They say they can’t keep (the actors) away from New York or Los Angeles and their other commitments (to do a play in St. Louis) for four or six weeks.” 

Roth and his STLAS associates who know Hamm, Brown and the others from their high school or college days in St. Louis figured now was as good as time as any to reach out again.

“I thought at this point, these guys have nothing to do,” said Roth. “You see them doing interviews unshaven in their home just talking about stuff. When I put together this idea, they were in.”

Roth says he also reached out to several female celebrities such as Ellie Kemper, Jenna Fischer and Jenifer Lewis, who grew up in St. Louis, but they were not available. He adds that he hopes this sustainment fund will not only benefit STLAS but other small theater companies nationwide.

“My hope is that like-minded small theater companies will initiate a similar fundraiser with celebrities that have roots in their cities,” he said. 

When I asked Roth whether his Jewish values helped shape this idea, he replied:

“Whether we are active in our Judaism or not, it is what we are taught and what we are all about — we try to repair the world in different ways. Come see a play and tell me if that doesn’t do it for at least the two hours you are there.”

To donate and for official rules and regulations, go to The fundraiser is open now and the winner will be drawn on Sept. 17.  

During the virtual meet-up, winners will be able to discuss anything of interest with the artist—from acting tips and insights, to fans just wanting to spend a little quality time. Donations are tax deductible.