Theatre has played an important role in Joe Benincasa's life, both personally and professionally.
"I proposed to my wife, Nan, the night we saw The Fantasticks," he recalls. "I planned that evening so I would ask her after the performance. She accepted. And over the years, we took our kids to see it again and again."
For the last 17 of those years, Benincasa has been executive director of The Actors' Fund, the renowned nationwide human-services organization that helps professionals in the performing arts, acting as a safety net and offering programs and assistance for people in need.
"I believe in the power of the arts, and I'm really amazed and impressed by the dedication of people in the arts," Benincasa says. "But I'm also overwhelmed by the lack of financial security of people who devote their lives to entertainment — the average amount of money earned from working in show business is about $16,000 a year. So The Actors' Fund has an enormous role to play as a safety net for those in the arts who need a helping hand." Benincasa grew up in New Brunswick, NJ, which is between New York City and Philadelphia. His parents often took him to see Broadway shows, but his first real recollection of New York theatre was the original Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel, which he saw on a church trip when he was an altar boy.
"Then, in high school and college, I became a creature of student tickets, seeing everything I could." College was at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, where he acted in a play, portraying the Rev. Philip Berrigan in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a drama by the Rev. Daniel Berrigan about anti-Vietnam war Jesuit activists.
After college and fellowships in Mexico and Colombia, he got a master's degree in education at Rutgers, also working as the director of a federally funded bilingual-education program in central New Jersey. Then he did public relations for the newly formed United Way of Tri-State and Dade County (Florida), participated in Fordham's MBA program, and in 1980 was recruited to do fund-raising and public relations for the New York Blood Center, the largest blood center in the world. He stayed for eight years.
"Over a 13-year span I produced public service announcements for the United Way, the Blood Center and the Red Cross, and by doing so I got to work with people like Helen Hayes and Colleen Dewhurst by enlisting their support for those causes. So when the Actors' Fund needed some help, I was asked to come over and take a look. I volunteered my time, and wrote up recommendations."
And then, in 1990, he was offered the job of executive director, to make the Actors' Fund fiscally stronger and to expand its services.
"This year is a special year for the Fund," he says. "It was formed in 1882, so it's our 125th anniversary. When it started, the word 'actor' applied to everybody. Now we work with everyone who works in the performing arts, onstage or backstage, in front of or behind the camera. Last year we helped more than 8,000 people in 46 states, including about 350 people living in residences we own and operate in Manhattan, Englewood, New Jersey, and West Hollywood, California."
Benincasa proudly notes that the Fund is also putting up a $50 million building in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn that will have 217 studio apartments for artists. "Our residential facilities help seniors, people with handicaps or HIV, or professionals in the business who earn less than $30,000 a year."
The programs, he says, "provide assistance to people at the beginning of their careers, through our Looking Ahead program for young performers, right through nursing care that we offer as people near the end of their lives."
He is also especially proud of the Fund's health initiatives. "Twice as many people in show business do not have health insurance compared with the national average. So we created a website to show people how to secure health insurance. For those who cannot get it, we created a health clinic at 57th Street and 10th Avenue that's named for the artist Al Hirschfeld. And we put together a coalition and got a bill passed in New York that pays one half of the cost of continuing insurance when someone in the arts loses health insurance."
The love of the arts continues in Benincasa's family — his son Christopher has won three Emmys producing documentaries about artists, and his daughter, Katie, is a dancer. (His other son, Andrew, is following his father's educational bent, teaching in Brooklyn.)
Benincasa plans to continue doing what he loves best — "building a stronger Actors' Fund, expanding our affordable and special-needs housing all over the country. This is a great legacy, passed on from all those who came before us, and demonstrates that the most important thing we can do in this world is take care of one another."