As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the operations and finances of many arts organizations across the country and state, Arts for All Wisconsin is adapting a retro fundraising technique — a telethon — to a distinctly modern situation.
Arts for ALL Wisconsin, formerly known as VSA Wisconsin, a statewide group that offers music and art opportunities for people with disabilities, has been facing extra challenges these days. A core tenet of the group’s work is to provide social and community-building opportunities, where people with various abilities come together for art classes and choir rehearsals and performances. It’s harder to create adaptive online programming when the group serves people with diverse needs, including visual and hearing impairments.
But Arts for ALL is rising to the occasion. On Nov. 14, the group will showcase the talent and support it has marshaled from around the country by hosting an old fashioned telethon, an online variety show that will provide ample opportunities for viewers to donate to the nonprofit.
Mike Lawler, the group’s director of development and external relations, says that Arts for ALL Wisconsin, with just four full-time staff people, has been scrambling to adapt. “Right now, while we’re forging ahead, the biggest challenge for us is really just finding a reasonable way to create inclusive, accessible virtual content,” says Lawler, via Zoom. “If we weren’t an organization that worked with people with disabilities, we probably would have had an easier time programming online. But there are a lot of considerations when it comes to working with people who have visual impairments, or who are deaf and hard of hearing, who need adaptive technologies just to interface with online programming. At the same time, we are dealing with all the things that for-profits and nonprofits are dealing with, which is where does the revenue come from, whether it’s earned or contributed? It’s been a whole new, crazy landscape that’s been created over the last six months.”
Lawler says fewer funding opportunities exist from governmental sources and private foundations because the group’s programming doesn’t fit the description of meeting essential needs.
The staff at the organization was planning a large in-person fundraiser this fall, but it had to be sidelined due to restrictions on crowds and general concern for the health of attendees. While the telethon might not generate as much income as a gala, Lawler says the event will also have the ancillary benefit of being accessible to anyone with an internet connection. “We’re hoping that we could do an event that would attract people to learn about us, to sort of open up our audience a little bit, which eventually down the road we’ll go to more contributions,” he says.
Telethons — the most famous being the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Labor Day telethons hosted by Jerry Lewis from 1966 to 2014 — are a bit of a throwback. They are basically televised variety shows with periodic pitches for people to call in and donate. Lawler says after it was clear the organization needed a new strategy, he and executive director Christina Martin-Wright started dreaming up a telethon for the new age.
“What if we tried to do something that was kind of like that, to see how many people we could get to contribute to it?” says Lawler. “We can’t ask people to be anywhere in person, but we can ask somebody to send us a clip, and that’s a lot easier for a lot of people to do. So we started just reaching out to friends to see how many people we attract.”
Artists’ responses to the call were overwhelmingly positive. The telethon will offer a whole afternoon and evening of entertainment, with theater, music, comedy and film. From Broadway to classical theater, bands and solo artists, monologues and even a special screening of an extraordinary film, the telethon has a full schedule of performers booked from 1-8 p.m., and contributions are still rolling in. Some huge names have signed on, including Tony Award-winning singer Karen Olivo and Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes. Several artists with disabilities will also contribute. Connie Alsum, a multifaceted actor and veteran of Encore Studio for the Arts performing a one-woman show titled “I’m Bigger Than That.” Comedian Johnny Walsh contributed a clip from the 2018 Madison’s Funniest Comic competition, which he won. Walsh says he was “immediately on board” when Arts for All Wisconsin asked him to participate.
“I have Usher Syndrome, a genetic condition that has caused severe hearing and vision loss,” Walsh says in an email. “My standup focuses a great deal about what it’s like to live with a significant disability and, hopefully, offers some optimism to others who are fighting their own battles. My message on stage is all about being able to laugh at yourself and find joy and humor in the world that surrounds us. I also have multiple sclerosis, but I haven’t written any funny jokes about that one, yet! For me, it has been art in the form of standup that has helped guide me through difficult moments. Hopefully, others with disabilities can find their art and use it as a way to enrich their lives, and I think AFA offers that opportunity.”
Fans of American Players Theatre will have an opportunity to see core company member Marcus Truschinski perform a monologue from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Truschinski would have played the character Berowne if APT’s summer season had not been canceled. “I think [Arts for All Wisconsin] is an absolutely wonderful organization, and I’m really fortunate to have been asked to contribute,” Truschinski writes in an email. “I believe wholeheartedly that the arts are for everyone and that they are a necessity. The pandemic has certainly put the arts’ necessity into perspective. I hope my small contribution is even the slightest bit helpful.”
One of the most unusual offerings is a screening at 5 p.m. of a three-part event called “The Feeling Through Experience.” Feeling Through is a short narrative film that was slated to play at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April before COVID shut it down. It is the first movie to star a deaf-blind actor, Robert Tarango, who makes his acting debut in the movie. It was inspired by a chance encounter the film’s writer and director, Doug Roland, had nine years ago in New York City. “I was coming home late one night and I saw a man standing on a street corner by himself holding a sign that said, ‘I’m deaf and blind and need help crossing the street,’” Roland says in a Zoom interview. Roland tapped the man on the shoulder, and while Roland guided him to his bus stop, the two began to converse; the deaf-blind man wrote on a notepad and Roland spelled words one letter at a time into his palm. The encounter led to a friendship between the two men and a fictional film based in part on that chance meeting. It also spurred Roland to collaborate with the Helen Keller National Center to create a film experience that is accessible to the deaf-blind community. The telethon will offer all three elements: the film itself; a documentary that explores the writing, casting and production of Feeling Through; and a Q&A with Roland and Christopher Woodfill, associate executive director of the Helen Keller Center; Woodfill is deaf-blind.
Lawler has been working overtime, organizing myriad details for the telethon, including arranging for ASL interpretation and captioning. He says it helps him see the positives in a time of loss. In fact, the organization itself has lost some cherished artists this year. “I’m sitting in my home office, all of my colleagues are in their home offices. I think that the hardest thing is just missing that personal interaction,” says Lawler. “But I’m hopeful because we’re still able to keep doing what we’re doing right now in some way. We’re still making progress. We’re still providing programming. We’re still communicating with people.”