Don’t be worried this spring if the actors onstage end their curtain call by speaking directly to you. It’s not audience participation—it’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ bi-annual, red bucket fundraiser.
Now a beloved tradition, its beginnings were deceptively simple: During Equity Fights AIDS’ appeals week in 1989, the cast of Off-Broadway’s Steel Magnolias decided to ask for donations directly from the stage. Housed in an Off-Broadway theatre free from the union regulations of larger Broadway houses, the concept proved to be remarkably popular—and effective. In ten days’ time, the company raised almost $8,000.
The first Broadway appeal came in 1991, thanks to Keith Carradine in The Will Rogers Follies. Having spent the majority of the show addressing the audience, nothing was more natural than for Carradine to turn to the audience after the curtain call. And, as BC/EFA Executive Director Tom Viola puts it, “It raised a boatload of money. So as other shows began to hear about that, they began to ask theatre owners and their own producers and management if they could do the same thing.”
Held for six weeks every fall and spring, the Easter Bonnet Competition appeals began March 8. Shows slated to participate immediately include Aladdin, Anastasia, Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, The Cher Show, King Kong, The Lion King, Mean Girls, Merrily We Roll Along and Wicked. They will be joined next week by Dear Evan Hansen, Fiddler on the Roof - in Yiddish, Frozen, Hamilton, Kinky Boots, My Fair Lady, The Phantom of the Opera, Pretty Woman, The Prom, To Kill a Mockingbird and Waitress, with more shows to be announced. In 2018, 62 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national tours raised $5.7 million during the Easter Bonnet Competition fundraising.
This year's Easter Bonnet Competition, the 33rd, will be held April 22 and April 23.
The product of tireless performers (who often have to dash off the stage, change out of their costumes and mic packs, and race to the lobby to hold buckets and sign posters) and volunteers, the appeals are one of the theatre community’s highlights. And it isn’t limited to just Broadway—Off-Broadway and national tours also participate, and the red buckets are also a frequent sight at regional theatres and after high school productions coast to coast.
“We’ve striven to be sure that the appeals never feel heavy-handed,” Viola says. “We want them to be an enthusiastic and gracious extension of the curtain call, a chance for the cast to ask the audience to do some good for others by sharing their good fortune. Each campaign raises millions of dollars because the actors deliver the message with such commitment and often times great humor with, of course, the amazing support of the entire company—from the crew backstage, musicians in the pit and front-of-house staff.”
As they exit the theatre, it’s clear they give for various reasons. “It’s wonderful to witness,” said Viola, who often holds a bucket himself with all in the Broadway Cares staff and hundreds of volunteers affectionately known as the bucket brigade. “People smile and tell us how much they enjoyed the show. Some folks give with tears in their eyes thanking us for remembering their loved ones.” He also points to parents who take the opportunity to engage their children in generosity. “I’ve watched them place a bill in a child’s hand and say, ‘Put that in the bucket. It will help someone.’ And, with a very sweet smile, the kid seems delighted to do it.”
As are we all.