In 1985, people were dying, and seemingly, no one was doing anything about it. The AIDS plague was ravaging the world, and arts organizations nationwide were experiencing tremendous loss as actors, writers, directors, designers, stage managers, choreographers, and musicians were taken far too soon. An entire generation of talent was lost.
In the spring of that year, a group of Chicago theater artists banded together to create "Arts Against AIDS," a benefit performance by and for the theater community to raise money for the newly created Biscotto-Miller Fund, which provides direct relief for those living with HIV/AIDS. It was named after two beloved theater artists, stage manager Tommy Biscotto and actor J. Pat Miller. The evening was meant to be inclusive and representative of as many artistic disciplines as possible.
On an off night at The Second City, the Chicago theater community produced what Chicago Tribune reporter Sid Smith described as "the biggest effort so far by Chicago's entertainment community to raise funds for victims of the deadly ailment, and one of the biggest to date by performers anywhere in the country."
The lineup was an impressive array of Chicago actors, singers, musicians, and comedians. Aaron Freeman, Frank Galati, Ross Lehman, members of The Second City ensemble, Carolyn Ford, and Scott McPherson were featured. The cornerstone of the evening was a performance from Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart with Gary Cole and D.W. Moffett, a member of the historic Remains Theatre, who flew in from New York City where he was starring in the play at the Public Theatre.
"All of us had experienced the loss of friends and acquaintances," said Tom Guerra, one of the organizers of the event. "We all felt the need to do something, something which would make a mark and create a movement which could grow bigger. Not for our personal gain or recognition, but to let our emotions and our feelings of loss to be channeled into a productive effort, to be of assistance to those … who were in need of help."
Arts Against AIDS was a huge success, raising more than $10,000 that night for the Biscotto-Miller Fund, which, in 1988, led to the creation of Season of Concern, the Chicagoland theater community's fundraising effort for those living with debilitating illness or injury. Since then, Season of Concern has distributed more than $2.5 million to 35 different Chicago-based AIDS services and has provided care for hundreds of artists in the entertainment industry who are experiencing health-related emergencies and medical issues.
On Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, 7 p.m., at Steppenwolf Theatre, Season of Concern will commemorate that auspicious event with "Season of Celebration: An Evening of Song," honoring the generous spirits of the organizers of Arts Against AIDS. The festivities will also include the Larry Sloan Awards, named after former executive director of Season of Concern and director of Remains Theatre. Board Member Emeritus Alexandra Billings ( Transparent ) will receive the Larry Sloan Heritage Award for her outstanding contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Other honorees include Chicago actor Mitchell Fain and the companies of Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol for their tireless fundraising efforts. The evening features performances by host ( and Chicago legend ) E. Faye Butler, Bethany Thomas, Christine Mild, Erik Hellman, Matt Deitchman, and a host of Chicago theatre favorites. As Ms. Billings eloquently wrote, Season of Concern is "artists helping artists, family helping family."
For more information and to purchase tickets to "Season of Celebration: An Evening of Song," visit www.steppenwolf.org or call ( 312 ) 335-1650.
Scott Duff is Season of Concern's manager of communications and fundraising events.