Wednesday, June 26, 2013

If actors ran an annual meeting ...

... it would look very much like the recent official yearly business session of the Episcopal Actors Guild, held in the theater (where else?) of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.
Sam Waterston

EAG President Elowyn Castle (can't you just see that name on a marquee?) gaveled the meeting to order, noting that the gavel itself was a donation from Sam Waterston (ever seen Law and Order?), a longtime supporter of the guild.

The guild is celebrating its 90th year and Executive Director Karen Lehman opened with a story about the early years in the 1920s. "A brother and sister dance act needed money to go to Hollywood for a screen test. The guild gave them $500 each to go. They were Fred and Adele Astaire and every year for the rest of his life, Fred Astaire wrote a check for $500 to the guild," she said, to a delighted reaction from the audience.
Adele and Fred Astaire, 1920s

In addition to stories, annual meetings run by actors feature excellent vocal projection (which came in handy since the mic battery died), appropriate physical movement (up/down arm gestures from treasurer Scott Glascock that helped us visualize the components of the financial report), free expression of emotion and applause (more on that later).

The EAG is quite a unique group that attracts and holds all of us who love theater. Its home is a hall adjacent to the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration at Fifth Avenue at 29th Street. It's also known as the Little Church Around the Corner. As the story goes, in 1870, actor Joseph Jefferson – famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle – had requested a funeral at a tony social Fifth Avenue church for fellow actor George Holland.  Upon learning that the deceased had trod the boards, the priest refused. Actors were considered by some to be unworthy of Christian burial. The priest suggested “there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.”  Jefferson responded, “Then I say to you, sir, God bless the little church around the corner.”

There was a book sale.
 I don't need more books.
I bought a biography of Ethel Barrymore.
Ever since, the "Little Church" has been associated with the theater profession. It is the home of the "Broadway Blessing," an interfaith service of song, dance and story. The EAG -- founded by the church's third rector, Randolph Ray -- stages various types of benefit evenings at Guild Hall, including a reading of a play about George Bernard Shaw and Lord Alfred Douglas, subject of an earlier blog post here.

I directed a staged reading of the radio play, War of the Worlds, at Guild Hall. It is typical of the Guild that a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, which produced the original, is a member of the Guild - Arthur Andersen, who is in his 90s.
Guild President
Elowyn Castle
makes an eloquent

But EAG is far more than a theatrical social club. As with the Astaires, EAG helps performers in need and it does so quickly and efficiently. On the scale of charities, it is tiny, but its impact in the lives of its clients is huge. We at the annual meeting heard that the Guild distributed a total of about $68,000 in the last fiscal year in grants, including $12,000 through its HIV/AIDS section.

If an actor has a medical crisis, or a personal or professional setback, the Guild is there to help. Among the letters the Guild has received: "The ability to pay for my physical therapy each week is a constant stress, and it was such a blessing to have a break from the financial strain." "Thank you for your financial support in helping me pay my rent. Now I can breathe, hold my head up high and move forward!"

Sam Waterston and Fred Astaire aren't the only well-known names associated with the Guild. Others are Rex Harrison and Barnard Hughes. Charlton Heston served as president in the 1970s. Jean Stapleton, who recently passed away, was on the advisory board, as are Elizabeth Ashley, Zoe Caldwell, Angela Lansbury and Richard Thomas.

The Guild has managed to keep its head above water through the financial crisis, but Treasurer Glascock's report revealed a difficult situation. The current fiscal year saw a significant shortfall. Expenses were also down, but the Guild had to draw on its endowment.

Although the Guild does pursue corporate and foundation support, it also simply needs more members and more members need to step up their support. So I am announcing in this post that I am upgrading my yearly $30 professional member status to life member status and I will do it at the highest level - $500. Membership levels are going up on July 1 to these rates: young professional $25/year, professional $35/year and patron $55/year. Life memberships are going up as of July 1 to $250, $350 and $550.

I am doing this not just because it's a "good thing," but because of the special warm, joyful feeling I get from Guild membership and the deep care with which the Guild regards the theater profession and its legacy.

The annual meeting opened and ended with prayers from Bishop Andrew St. John (I want to see that name on a marquee, too), current rector of the Little Church and Warden of the Guild. But just before the closing blessing, longtime member William Shust read the annual list of Guild members who no longer grace our earthly stage but have journeyed to "the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveler returns," as Hamlet says.

He read the names slowly, deliberately, with great articulation, and when he finished, the audience rose and gave them their final standing ovation.