Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS

Spotlight: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

The pandemic and the shutdown of Broadway shows hasn’t stopped one of FAM’s major donors, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA), from raising and donating record-setting amounts of money or producing most of its signature events online.

BC/EFA, which donated $50,000 to FAM, supports HIV/AIDS organizations and helps men, women and children across the country to receive life-saving medications, health care, nutritious meals, counseling and emergency financial assistance.

BC/EFA donated a record $18.1 million in grants in fiscal year 2020, up 22% from the prior record-setting year, despite seven months of that fiscal year being consumed by a pandemic during which they could not collect money from theatre audiences.

By drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community, BC/EFA has raised more than $300 million since 1988 for essential services for people with HIV/AIDS and other critical illnesses and for the social service programs at The Actors Fund.

Earlier this month, FAM’s Irwin Rappaport spoke via Zoom with BC/EFA Executive Director Tom Viola (pictured).

Tom, this is your 25th anniversary year as Executive Director.  How did you first get involved with the organization and what’s your personal story around HIV and AIDS?  

I moved to town [New York City] in 1976 to be an actor like everyone else.  Kids we work with now can’t imagine what it was like then.  Being gay but, with few exceptions, not being out.  Sexual liberation, parties, feeling our oats. That all changed with the advent of AIDS in 1981.

First there was the New York Times article with the headline “Rare cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”  Then in 1982, I was walking up Broadway near where I live and saw a dancer friend, a very handsome and popular guy, coming towards me.  As we got closer, I could see he didn’t look well.  He looked drawn, ashen and tired. I could also see that he didn’t want to acknowledge me.   He kept his eyes in front so that our eyes never met, so that we wouldn’t talk.  We walked right past each other.

I thought, “Oh my God, Richard’s sick.”

That was the first time I couldn’t deny any longer that the disease would affect me and friends around my age.

In 1984, I went to brunch with a group of seven friends, all of us were making our way early in our Broadway careers.  We started what would become a familiar conversation among gay men at the time (“Have you heard about….?”), but we still could feel that it was happening more to other people than to us.

Ten years later, four of the eight men were dead and two of them, including me, were HIV positive.  In 1988, I worked for Equity Fights AIDS and as assistant to Actors Equity President Colleen Dewhurst, who was determined that EFA find roots in our community because there was such distress.

What are some of the challenges and issues today?

Today, you can’t say AIDS is no longer an issue.  AIDS is still a deadly disease for those in the country.  You can’t get the life-saving medications if you aren’t receiving Medicare or if you’re uninsured because your state’s governor “brilliantly” decided not to provide it for you or you can’t afford it.

We respond to what is most important to the community in the moment, whether its COVID, through funding of the COVID Emergency Assistance Fund, or injustice or inequality by funding Black Lives Matter.

We were the first funder of the U=U project by Bruce Richmond, and when the CDC supported the finding, we began to promote that an undetectable viral load means that you can’t transmit the virus to others.

Broadway Cares manages to produce events filled with joy, laughter and playfulness in your fundraising for HIV/AIDS.  Was that intentional?

Celebrating who we are, even in the midst of what is intense sorrow, anger and confusion, particularly in the first decade, that’s what sets us apart. It’s in the nature of theatre folk.

Broadway Bares” is a great example.  Jerry Mitchell dancing on the bar at Splash is where it began. It celebrates our bodies, in a safe, sexy and playful way, while helping people whose bodies are giving them tremendous problems.

There have been many moving moments at events, such as “Gypsy of the Year” and the Easter Bonnet competition, but there have been many more that are indeed joyous, celebratory and pretty damn funny.

Are there any individual stories you’d like to share about how these grants have helped particular families, people or organizations — stories that are particularly gratifying and remind you why this work is so important?

There’s one thank-you that I always remember.  In the very early days of our work, 1990, an actor named Nick Pippin sent me a note.  Nick had received help from us via The Actors Fund and wrote: “You’ve made this atheist believe again in angels.”

From Vicky, a grateful client of North Idaho AIDS Coalition in Coeur d’Alene, ID: “Because of your support, I’m not overwhelmed with all the things that come with managing this illness emotionally and physically. Because of you, I have a place that I can go that will look at all of my needs, help me prioritize them and make a plan with me. It means I can help myself; you’re helping me help myself.”

Ed, a client of Mama’s Kitchen, San Diego, CA, explains: “My medication has to come with a meal, otherwise it will be ineffective. And thanks to you I’m able to get a meal here in San Diego and this support is crucial to my survival.”

Sara Brewer, executive director of Face to Face, Santa Rosa, CA, said: “Times are hard for us as we’ve had to cancel two – maybe three – of our fundraisers, and they’re the big ones. Every dollar counts and this is going to go a long way to help our clients living with HIV stay engaged in care and safe during this crazy time. Thank you again, and for all you and your team is doing for organizations like ours throughout the country.”