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Theater actors and crew come together to create emergency fund for artists

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Eric Schaeffer, Signature Theatre’s artistic director, gave loose guidelines to the performers in the upcoming “Summer Hummer,” a benefit for Taking Care of Our Own, TheatreWashington’s emergency fund for theater artists in the District.

His words to the cast: “It can be naughty.”

“It’s going to be a very bawdy, off-color variety show,” said Matthew Gardiner, who is co-directing the show with Schaeffer. “There’s a little bit of burlesque.”

Schaeffer describes the final product as a racy, rowdy event for the over-18 crowd. “It’s unlike anything the theater community has ever done.”

Taking Care of Our Own (or, as TheatreWashington has abbreviated it, TCOOO, pronounced “tee-coo”) was introduced at the Helen Hayes Awards this year. Inspired by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Actors Fund, TCOOO aims to provide assistance for theater professionals who are in need because of emergencies.

Schaeffer pitched the idea for a fund dedicated to the District to Linda Levy Grossman, president and chief executive of TheatreWashington.

“It took me barely a millisecond to say: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” Grossman said. “There was simply no question in my mind that this was a great idea.”

TCOOO kicked off with a “bucket brigade” fundraiser during theater week in April. Participating theaters collected donations from audiences (people could also donate via a “virtual bucket” on TheatreWashington’s Web site) and brought in about $11,000.

“Summer Hummer” was also part of Schaeffer’s vision for the fund, a big vaudeville show that could raise heaps of money in one night and encourage the District’s actors “to do stuff we wouldn’t normally do, be irreverent and have a great time.” Tickets are $25, or $125 for a VIP ticket, which includes access to an after-party with the cast.

“It’s the whole community coming together,” Schaeffer said of the 25-plus-person pack that includes Holly Twyford, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Evan Casey, Natascia Diaz, Sherri L. Edelen, James Gardiner, Channez McQuay and Donna Migliaccio.

Signature has sponsored similar benefits in the past, for actress Jane Pesci-Townsend, who needed help paying medical bills (she had kidney cancer and died in 2010), and actor Steven Cupo, who calls himself “an alumni” of this sort of event.

Cupo’s brain tumor was diagnosed in 1998. He needed two surgeries. Insurance would cover 80 percent of the cost, but that left Cupo with $20,000 in medical bills. “I was kind of up the creek,” he said, until the cast and crew of Signature’s “A Stephen Sondheim Evening” volunteered to do an extra performance and donate all the proceeds to him. The show raised $16,000.

“What it did is, it saved my life,” Cupo said. “If they hadn’t done something like that, I’m not sure what I would have done. I would’ve had to go into debt. It would’ve been catastrophic.”

After the stand-alone benefits for Cupo and Pesci-Townsend, “I felt that we should have something like this [fund] to be able to help people out,” Schaeffer said. “And for all of us, creatively, it’s kind of a release. We get to do something, [and] there’s no pressure about it. It builds us in a way that normally we don’t get to do as colleagues. . . . This is so celebratory.”

The party line is that the actors will be “letting their hair down,” a cliche that is repeated by multiple people involved in the show. (No ponytails allowed, people. Hair is getting down.)

The anything-goes vibe has led to some interesting negotiations. “One actress is singing this song with really funny lyrics,” Schaeffer said. “She said, ‘I think naked people should just be walking behind me while I’m singing it.’”

Schaeffer compromised. “I was like, ‘Maybe just scantily clad.’ ”

He hopes “Hummer” will bring in $20,000 more, making the first year TCOOO total a little more than $30,000. An advisory panel, whose members were selected by TheatreWashington, is finalizing the application process for theater artists to request funds. “There has to be some level of verification,” Levy said, “but we don’t want to make this a complicated process. We want to make it easy.”

The advisory panel consists of Schaeffer; Janet Griffin, artistic producer of Folger Theatre; Rebecca Ende, managing director of Theater J; Bill Largess, producing artistic director of the Washington Stage Guild; Joseph Rossi, managing director of Adventure Theatre MTC; Mary Resing, artistic director of Active Cultures Theatre; and Brad Watkins, director of theatre services at TheatreWashington. The panelists will serve for two years and are tasked with determining how emergency aid is distributed.

“I’d love to see [Taking Care] blossom into a major resource,” Grossman said, but “I think we have to remain realistic also, that the support that we may be able to offer in the foreseeable future . . . it’s not going to be giant gifts.”

Cupo said, “Washingtonians, from my own experience, can be very generous, so the potential for something like that to grow is fantastic.

“The idea of creating a fund for performers and crew who would find themselves in the same situation [as I was in] is just a magnificent idea,” he said. “And I’m a living, breathing witness to that, that it can literally turn somebody’s life around.”

Summer Hummer

7 p.m. Aug. 20 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. www.signature-theatre.org .

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