ACTober – for the benefit of the arts

A production of the Aladdin stage musical. Image: pixabay.com.

ACTober is a month-long campaign to raise money for performers, creators technicians and other workers in the arts who are struggling. The Sentinel spoke with actor and chair of the Actors Benevolent Fund, Bruce Spence, about the campaign.  

The Actors Benevolent Fund (ABF) in NSW, and similar organisations around the country, were originally set up to give an occasional helping hand to artists going through a tough time – but during the last 18 months they’ve experienced overwhelming demand for assistance. 

“This is probably the biggest crisis that the Actors Benevolent Fund has had since its inception in 1944 after the Second World War,” says ABF chair Spence. 

“The theatre industry has been hit particularly hard. In the first 18 months, they were quite forgotten. More than 90 per cent of actors were not able to take advantage of JobKeeper, and so they were just on JobSeeker. Because of the casual nature of their work, their income has been hit doubly hard.”

In past campaigns, ABF volunteers collected donations by literally passing a bucket around at the end of shows in theatres around Sydney. 

Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, the ABF formed an alliance with benevolent funds from five states in Australia and one from New Zealand. The Alliance of Australasian Performing Arts Benevolent Funds (AAPABF) then ran ACTober as a national campaign, entirely online.

This year, ACTober will again be a “virtual bucketing” campaign. Donations can be made via the ACTober website; donors can also give directly to the benevolent fund in their state. 

Actor and Chair of Actors Benevolent Fund (NSW), Bruce Spence. Image: supplied.

It’s hoped that this ACTober campaign will help replenish the seriously depleted coffers of each organisation. For many industry workers, these benevolent funds have become a lifeline. 

“The thing about actors is, they’re used to having it tough,” says Spence. “In general, at any given time, 10 per cent of actors would be in work, 90 per cent would be out of work. So a lot of actors spend a lot of their time resting or doing a second job. And a lot of those actors who had those second jobs like bar work or working in a theatre as an usher or whatever, those jobs disappeared too.”

Working in the arts requires you to be inherently stoic and resilient: it doesn’t pay particularly well; it’s inconsistent and often unreliable; there’s not a lot of financial support. 

“Before the pandemic, we were assisting mainly older people who were in retirement or infirmity – they’d had an accident and weren’t able to work, etcetera. We were providing lots of funds for medical fees (we still are, actually) … but mainly old age and infirmity and the effects of that,” explains Spence. “But the pandemic changed everything. We’ve been assisting any actor that manages to indicate to us that they are in need.”

An Actors Benevolent Fund video highlighting the support on offer for performers and creators. Video: Actors Benevolent Fund of NSW/YouTube.

The ABF has assisted with paying rent and household costs; they’ve provided food vouchers and helped cover utility bills; they’ve assisted with medical costs including dental and an ever increasing presentation of mental health issues. 

Payments are made directly to debtors and not to individuals. 

“Even though some theatres are going back in October and November, we won’t be up to full production – television and film will still be stumbling a bit. Actors really won’t be back to some sort of normalcy really until the beginning of the year if we’re lucky,” says Spence. “We don’t even know what capacity of audience theatres will be able to have until the government makes its decision.”

Spence and other people in the industry are also concerned about creative professionals dropping out of the industry altogether.

“Will we lose that talent base which is really vital for the industry?” he asks.

During the campaign, people are being encouraged not only to give generously but to share memories and thoughts about live performances and their experience with the arts, using the hashtag #ACTober on social media. 

To donate, visit http://www.actober.com.au.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.