Noticing Neighbors Theatre Community Fund


Like many metropolitan areas, Kansas City now joins the ranks of cities that offer direct relief for performing artists through the Theatre Community Fund. This organization was started during the height of the pandemic, right when many actors, directors, designers, and stage managers were facing uncertain times for performances. It became evident that a movement for giving was needed. So in response, the Theatre Community Fund offers a food bank, care packages, financial relief, as well as various grants to support upcoming productions. Jake Walker sat down with me to talk about the community support for the organization.


Hayley: Can you explain what the Theater Community Fund does in Kansas City?


Jake:

Yes. I’ve wanted to start an actors fund here in Kansas City for several years. My good friend John Moore in Denver started a Denver Actors Fund several years ago, which is basically just a resource for theater people when they hit rough patches or need a little help. There's a national organization in New York called The Actors Fund, and I've always thought Kansas City should have one of those! Then last year, all of this happened, and it lit a fire underneath me. Hayley: What does the work look like? Jake: Basically, we provide support and assistance to theater workers in Kansas City in need. We do that through a food bank, which is open to the community. We will never turn anyone away who is in need.

Hayley: Are there people using it?

Jake: We have over 100 households now that receive recurring care packages from our food bank, and I'd say about 25 of them are theater people. But just for the theatre community, we also have emergency grants. I think we've given out about twelve since we started them in February. We do cap them at $225, because that's what we've budgeted for. But for a lot of months, we've had either few or no applicants, and so we have awarded some people. I think that the highest one we rewarded has been $1400 and change for someone's medical bills. We’ve paid someone's rent, car payments, vet payments and even little things where someone contacted and, of course, it's confidential who they are, but we can share their stories. Someone had to call a locksmith because their key broke off in their front door, and that was $125. So that sets them back $125. That's a cell phone bill! So we gave them that. We just now just this week awarded a grant for veterinary bills. Hayley: Those are critical moments.


Jake: We want to be there for times of need and emergencies, but we also want to kind of move the needle on a lot of other fronts when it comes to diversity and inclusion. To that end, actually, we created the Crescendo Awards, which is made through donations. We made funds available for BIPOC theater creators in Kansas City that gives them money towards the production costs of staging their original work.


We budgeted about $5,000 and we're working with some partners in the community: The Arts Asylum, KC Public Theatre and The Buffalo Room. This round, four people applied. So we're going to give Crescendo awards to three of the applicants, and we created another category for one applicant whose project wasn't quite finished. Since it wasn't quite right for the grant, we created a scholarship and we're going to pay their entrance fee to The French Festival for next year.


We also are providing a free diversity, equity and inclusion workshop for all the theater producers in town. We've paid a DDI consultant to gather all the theater directors and hopefully get everyone on the same page. We have a masterclass series where we pay professional artists to give master classes to people at no charge for them, so the tagline is: free access to professional mentorship. Hayley: That’s so valuable. Jake: We're in a really amazing position where we are not a producer, we're a charity organization, so we don't have to worry about programming and casting or any of that on the backend. But we are able to do these little things to move the needle on these issues, and hopefully it makes Kansas City a more safe environment for the most vulnerable communities.

Hayley:

If you think about the timeline, it hasn't been going that long⁠— Jake: Yes. Hayley: ⁠And it sounds like it's already brought so many people together. In what ways have you gotten to witness important moments?


Jake: Well, gosh, there's so many. I'll say first off, it's been rewarding working with our Board President, Alexandria Washington, who is an amazing woman black artist here in town. She's written grants, she's a marketing director at The Unicorn Theatre, and she is on top of things. But in working on this, I'm just astounded and a little bit disappointed that she hasn't been swooped up by a bigger company. She works in financial advisement full time, built our website, writes grants for us and also does our financial.


Personally, that has been an incredibly rewarding journey to work with her and learn from her. She is an amazing force in the community and with TCF.

But then I'd say on a broader level, and I always get kind of emotional when I talk about this, the most common thing that we hear from our food bank and emergency grant recipients is: “When I'm back on my feet, I'll come and I'll donate.” Or, “I'll come and I'll volunteer.” People want to give back.

These are people, both from the theater community and people who live in trailer parks in Belton, who are so grateful that someone cared enough. We're driving these care packages to their house, and the gratitude is astounding because people want to be a part of the giving cycle. If they receive, they have a pull to then give, even if it's out of their ability for the foreseeable future. They really want to give back because they're so grateful people notice when they need something.

Hayley:

I think sometimes that pull is underestimated. Do you know what I mean? Jake: Yes. Hayley: Like, people think that if we help or assist in some way, then it's just an endless pool of need. And it's like, no⁠—you're actually activating all these people to come together and take part.

Jake: That's another thing, when we started, we stored our food bank at KC Public Theatre in their office space. After our first food drive, it became clear that there was not enough room, and we didn't say this publicly. Cynthia Levin at The Unicorn Theatre noticed that we had started a food bank and contacted us, unsolicited, and offered to store the food bank in the Jerome Theater which was empty because of the pandemic. So we started there and Musical Theater Heritage donated all of our shelves.

Hayley:

Oh, wow.

Jake: Yeah. We started one little shelf in the Jerome. Then in a very short amount of time, we were having food drives every Monday, and having theater people come by every Monday to donate maxi pads, textured hair products, rice, and macaroni. We were at the Unicorn for almost a full year for free. They offered it to us, we didn't ask them.

Hayley: That part is incredible, that people have come to you to assist.


Jake: This is a weird analogy to draw but in Fight Club the narrator says, “Everyone already wanted it. We just gave it a name.” Once we gave it a name, then people just showed up and we don't know how they started showing. Hayley: Do you think that this had already been a need for the local area?

Jake: That's kind of how it felt. As soon as people started hearing about us, everyone wanted to support the artists. I think people in Kansas City have a more hits close to home knowledge of how artists have been affected by Covid 19 and they wanted to be able to give. They wanted to be able to help actors, and directors, and designers, and stage managers⁠—and a lot of people were already donating to theaters. We gave a place to direct that help. There's a lot of generosity that happens within friendship circles. I know I hit a wall where I was broke. I lost about $15,000 in expected work, and was up against eviction. I put out an ask to the people I knew, and within a couple of days my friends had pulled the money together so I could pay my rent and survive until my unemployment came through. Hayley: Wow. Jake: I just realized that not everyone has access to that kind of support circle, even if they do have families somewhere. There are people who just moved to Kansas City to be an actor. They're 22. They get out of college, they move here from Columbia or Chicago or somewhere, and then what if there's nothing at first?


There's no jobs, there's no gigs, there's no auditions, and they don't know anyone. So with what we've done, I like calling us a lightning rod for the current of generosity that already courses through Kansas City. We're just a way to centralize it and open up the access to everyone.


Hayley: I love that you said it just needed a name. People wanted a gathering space to be able to put all that energy towards with support, and that's beautiful. I guess my last question would be if someone's reading this and they didn't know about Theatre Community Fund before, but they want to get involved, how can they join in on what you're doing?


Jake:

Well, they can always go to our website, which is theaterfundkc.org and I would just say don’t be shy to reach out! It would be a great way to come get to know us and meet with some fellow big hearted artists.



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