In late January of this year, when I first interviewed Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA), snow was on the ground, President Biden had taken office just a week earlier, and vaccinations had only just started in the U.S.
What a difference a few months have made. As of May 7, 50% of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 41% are fully vaccinated. The country is cautiously beginning to open up again, and——gasp!——plans for the re-launching of live theater is on the horizon. Hope springs eternal. Governor Cuomo has announced that Broadway theaters are eligible to re-open their doors, at 100% capacity, starting on September 14.
Almost anyone who regularly attends live theater in this country is familiar with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS——from their curtain call donation pitches, to events such as Broadway Bares, Broadway Barks, and the Easter Bonnet Competition, to their Initiatives benefiting theater artists of all stripes (actors, musicians, technicians and more) with financial and other assistance.
And leading the way, from the very beginning, in 1987, has been Tom Viola. In fact, it is hard to separate Tom from BC/EFA. They are synonymous.
When I first spoke with Tom via telephone, on a blustery winter’s day in January, he was cozily ensconced in his home in Hudson, New York, just north of the New York City hustle. With his two dogs, two cats, and two acres of land, Tom clearly finds peace here – a much-needed respite from the demands of his job, at which he is still going strong, after 34 years.
But first, a bit of history.
BC/EFA is one of the nation’s leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations, helping those in need, from across the country, to receive lifesaving medications, health care, nutritious meals, counseling, and emergency financial assistance.
By drawing upon the talents, resources, and generosity of the American theater community, since 1988, BC/EFA has raised more than $300 million for essential services for people with HIV/AIDS and other critical illnesses in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC.
But before there was BC/EFA, there was just EFA.
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS began as two separate organizations.
Equity Fights AIDS was founded in October 1987 by the Council of Actors’ Equity Association. Broadway Cares was founded in February 1988 by members of The Producers’ Group. Money raised was awarded to AIDS service organizations nationwide.
In May 1992, Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares merged to become Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
At the 47th TONY Awards in 1993, BC/EFA was awarded a Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre, and, in 2010, Tom was honored with the same award, at the 64th Tony Awards.
Tom is an outspoken advocate for the organization he helped create, but I thought that our readers might be curious to know a bit more about the man behind this monumental organization that benefits so many. I asked him to talk about his origins, his personal journey leading up to, and throughout, his thirty-three-year journey with BC/EFA.
Bruce Ward: Tom, I know that many folks, especially those in the theater world, associate Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, with your name. But, of course, you had a life before the organization. What brought you to New York City?
Tom Viola: I moved to New York in 1976, from Pittsburgh, where I studied musical theater. I will turn 66 in July. I came to the city to pursue an acting career, but also to be gay, both socially and sexually. It felt liberating during those first few years, when the party was still going on.
When did you first become aware of AIDS?
Right away. I remember reading the New York Times article, in 1981, about a “rare cancer” in gay men. At first, it was easy to push away. I mean, I was young. I thought that this only affected “partiers” and older gay men.
But that article cast a shadow over life in New York; I felt the difference. The first time it dawned on me was when I was walking up Broadway and a friend walked towards me. Our eyes didn’t meet, but I could tell that he was sick.
Sometime around 1984, I was at brunch with friends, and we were talking about what was happening. But we kept pushing it away from ourselves; it wasn’t our group. But of those eight friends at the table, four are dead, and two, including myself, are HIV-positive.
Were you continuing to work as an actor?
No. In 1981, I started work as an assistant to a literary agent, and then began doing freelance writing. In 1987, I was hired for what was to be an eight-week freelance job at Actors’ Equity.
I’m assuming that didn’t turn out to be eight weeks.
No, what started as a part-time gig writing pamphlets and a staff manual became a full-time job working for Colleen Dewhurst, who was then the President of Actors’ Equity. Equity Fights AIDS was forming at that time, and my life stepped in a different direction.
I can’t emphasize enough how important Colleen was in the founding of EFA, as well as overseeing the beginning of the merger with BC.
How did that merger between Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares come about?
At the same time that EFA was being founded through Actors’ Equity, BC was doing its thing, raising money through The Producers Fund. Rodger McFarlane was heading up that organization. And everyone involved felt that there was too much going on to get into a pissing match. So we worked towards a merger, which became official in 1992.
The next few years were the most exhausting, because we didn’t see an end in sight. [HAART therapy emerged in 1996.]
How did you learn fundraising?
Just by doing it. Everything we do now seems institutionalized, but we started small. We were scrappy. We did bake sales on the sidewalk outside where “Cats” was playing on Broadway.
Our popular annual fundraiser,. Broadway Bares, was started by Jerry Mitchell at the bar, Splash, in 1992. The event raised $8,000. The 2019 edition, at the Hammerstein Ballroom, brought in $2 million. We learned how to do things incrementally. We reflected on what we did well, and what we could do better.
Speaking of events, BC/EFA produces so many enthusiastically popular and diverse annual events. Do you, personally, have a favorite event?
My favorite event is the one that’s just been completed.
Fair enough. How about special moments that stand out for you?
I love doing a moment of silence during The Red Bucket Follies [formerly Gypsy of the Year.] That is the only event during which we do that.
I love the collection of bonnets at the end of the Easter Bonnet Competition.
I love the sexiness of Broadway Bares, and particularly how we are able to appeal to a younger generation, particularly gay men.
I love that with Broadway Barks, held in Schubert Alley, shelter animals are going to be adopted and find their “furrever” homes.
And, of course, with all of them, I love the general feeling of gratitude and good will and love.
BC/EFA started in reaction to the AIDS epidemic. Can you talk a bit about how the organization has evolved over the years? I’m sure that many people may be unfamiliar with the breadth and diversity of organizations and individuals benefitting from the fundraising efforts of BC/EFA.
The organizations’s grant-making has two emphases: The Actors Fund, and the National Grants Program. We now support five major social service programs at The Actors Fund, but it was their Phyllis Newman Health Initiative in 1995 [that helped expand BC/EFA’s mission], and then we began to expand our services to drug treatment and other social service organizations.
We created resources that didn’t exist before. And any money raised helps make funding for HIV/AIDS programs even more possible. We consider BC/EFA to be “the philanthropic heart of Broadway.”
We are also responsive to issues that the Broadway community feels are important to its members. Reacting to events such as Hurricane Katrina, and issues like racial justice, keeps us from being old news or an anachronism, while also maintaining our commitment to [the changing needs] of AIDS services.
Our appeals for donations have never needed to be Public Service Announcements. We work in simplicity. Everyone understands hunger and nutrition. People understand the issues of programs for the elderly, harm reduction, health clinics.
One of our highest profile fundraising superstars has been Hugh Jackman, who became notorious for auctioning off t-shirts he wore in his shows. He began making appeals following performances of The Boy from Oz, and then with each of his subsequent shows. One donor bid $25, 000 dollars to meet Hugh. I could have wept advocacy blood. But because of the star power involved, BC/EFA averaged $30,000 a night!
The list of celebrities who have given of their time and talents is a long one: Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming [A&U, January 2004] , Bette Midler, Daniel Craig. But it is also the musician who is willing to sit in the pit without pay for an extra performance, the stage managers, the unions. Celebrities are the shine and gloss. But everyone gives so much.
We cherish and nurture our relationships very carefully. The staff and the volunteers are the unsung heroes. Everything we do is based on relationships, which takes as much emotional intelligence as it does strategic planning.
Tom, in addition to your fierce advocacy work, you have been quite open and honest about your HIV status, as well as your recovery from drug and alcohol use. I know that our readers would appreciate hearing about that side of your life. Could you talk a bit about your relationship to drugs and alcohol, and how you approached sobriety?
Of course. I began to realize that my drug and alcohol use was gradually becoming more of a problem. I first became sober in 1988. which gave me a ballast to get into the work at EFA.
But in October 1992, I had a relapse. I had hit a wall. A close friend and Colleen both passed away. The last thing I thought I would do was self-medicate, and I should have taken probably a more therapeutic approach.
My relapse from drugs and alcohol also led me to seroconvert. I tested HIV-positive, for the first time, in February 1993. I had tested negative all the years prior to that.
And then my HIV status was mentioned on Page Six of the New York Post. I felt exposed and betrayed and vulnerable. I was going through an incredible process. Frankly, I was fighting for my life. It involved my family; I hadn’t shared my HIV status with them.
That’s a dramatically intrusive way to have your private life revealed. How did you manage through it all?
I must say that the theater community rallied around me. I had messages from friends, strangers, all over the world. All people cared about was that I be well.
But that experience finally propelled me to go to rehab, to Hazelden, in April 1993. And I have been sober since.
Congratulations on that. And how are you doing, health-wise, managing your HIV?
I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had any real health issues. I didn’t even need meds until 1998. And then, my T cells jumped from 200 to 800, with no viral load. There are times I forget about having HIV. I don’t wake up every morning thinking I’m HIV-positive.
And now, of course, we know about U = U.
Yes. As a matter of fact, we were PAC’s [Prevention Access Campaign] first major funder. U = U is a very important component for folks dealing with their own diagnosis, and for their partners, family members, and friends.
What made you decide to begin sharing the story of your recovery and HIV status?
Interestingly, the Tony award was given to BC/EFA two months after I came home from rehab. And it helped me to realize that I needed to be open about my story. Whether it’s HIV or drugs and alcohol, it is about “us”, not “them.” You can’t do this work without taking care of yourself, or without having empathy.
Michael Jeter”s acceptance speech after winning his Tony [in 1990, for Grand Hotel] saved my life, and others. He sent out the message, “You are not alone. So, the reason I share my personal experiences is to give hope to others.”
[For anyone unfamiliar with Jeter’s speech, as well as his unforgettable performance on the 1990 Tony awards ceremony, you can check them both out here: https://youtu.be/euCvQ4ikZZQ ]
So, let’s fast-forward to last year. When did you first become aware that COVID-19 was going to affect the theater, and, well, everything else?
In the nights leading up to Broadway shutting down [on March 12, 2020], I saw the West Side Story revival, and Girl from the North Country. I remember being hypersensitive to coughing, even clearing my own throat.
Once the New York Times published its story about the spread of COVID-19 among the Moulin Rouge and other companies, it happened fast.
Everything that BC/EFA had been doing stopped. The appeals, everything. All of it was shut down in a weekend.
So how did BC/EFA react to this sudden and unprecedented shutdown?
We pivoted immediately to an online campaign. We had to reinvent everything. We created a COVID-19 emergency assistance fund, dedicated specifically to The Actors Fund. Through our fundraising events, we have now awarded the actors fund over $10 million, and our grants program over $4 million.
That is amazing. And, at the same time, you have created some beautiful and fun virtual events to stave off the theater-going audience’s hunger for live performance.
[Since I first interviewed Tom in late January, we had another brief conversation in early May, to catch up on the newest developments.]
Governor Cuomo recently announced that Broadway will re-open on September 14. Is that possible?
Well, there are more than a dozen different unions involved, as well as the logistics of bringing companies together, casting, rehearsals, and, of course, reconfiguring the theaters and bringing audiences back. All with everyone’s safety in mind. It is a huge undertaking.
But it does give millions of theater-goers hope. Are there any upcoming events that we can expect to keep us entertained and donating, while waiting for Broadway to reopen?
We will still be continuing with online campaigns and virtual events. It remains to be seen how real-time events will happen in the fall. We are in a grey period – a little bit of virtual and a little bit of live.
I can announce that our next virtual Virtual Broadway Bares will stream on Sunday, June 20. And it won’t be a “look-back” like last year, because we create new numbers, and perform them outside.
Well, that is certainly something for audiences to be excited about. I have to tell you that the storyline that was created for last year’s ”look-back” had me crying like a baby. And I wasn’t the only one. It was beautifully done. What do you see for your own future with BC/EFA?
Sharing my work with people in this way has saved my life. There have been lots of moments of pride and gratitude. I’ve been doing this for thirty-three years, and I don’t feel I’ve been on a treadmill. The work remains vital and interesting.
I hope we can stay flexible, responsive, and essential. We can still anticipate the immediate future, even though we know we can’t predict it. I’m proud that we have created a legacy, even as our mission changes.
Any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers?
We all have a personal and community responsibility to get vaccinated. There can be no letting up now. Now is the time to double down on the commitment.
Amen to that. Thank you, Tom.
For more information about the photography of Stephen Churchill Downes, visit: stephenchurchilldownes.com.
Photography Studio: Hudson Yards Loft / James Weber hudsonyardsloft.com
For information on U = U, check out: www.preventionaccess.org.
For more information on BC/EFA, and to make a donation, visit: broadwaycares.org.
Bruce Ward writes the Years of Living Precariously column for A&U.