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After the isolation of the pandemic, participants in our Veterans Theatregoing Program value the power of the performing arts more than ever
Not only has Iraq war veteran Rob Timmins been attending Broadway shows for free with TDF since the inception of our Veterans Theatregoing Program, but he's enlisted his buddies, too. At a November performance of the Tony-winning musical Hadestown, he was thrilled to sit next to his fellow vet Saul, whom Timmins introduced to the program. "He actually saw his first Broadway show ever, Chicago, through the TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program," says Timmins. "Saul was even more excited this time around because he was able to bring his wife."
Timmins and Saul hadn't seen each other since before the pandemic began, and reconnecting was emotional. "We hugged for a bit for sure," says Timmins. "As public servants in higher education, neither one of us has the disposable income to really have special nights out to see live performances. But because of TDF, we were able to make that reunion happen."
The TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program was launched in December 2017 in partnership with New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, then Chair of the Committee on Veterans. The idea was to give veterans living in the five boroughs a chance to experience the transformative power of the performing arts with their loved ones at no cost. To make these outings even more memorable, TDF often arranges post-show talkbacks with actors and theatre artists. With continued support from the New York City Council and in association with almost 40 local organizations that serve members of our nation's armed forces, thousands of veterans have attended dozens of productions, including the Broadway shows Aladdin, Dear Evan Hansen, Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations, Thoughts of a Colored Man, Jagged Little Pill, Lackawanna Blues, The Book of Mormon, Come From Away, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked.
Of course, during the 18 months Broadway was closed due to COVID-19, attending in-person performances wasn't an option. But TDF never abandoned the veterans who depend on us. To keep them engaged with theatre, we arranged complimentary BroadwayHD subscriptions so vets could stream recordings of shows from the safety of their homes, and hosted virtual Q&As with directors, producers and performers. Timmins took advantage of these online events, and while he admits "nothing beats live theatre," he enjoyed that "there were no long lines for the restrooms!"
During the shutdown, participants also turned to our culture blog, TDF Stages, to learn about the ways theatre artists were navigating the pandemic. "At 96 years of age and cocooned in my home, TDF helped ease my isolation," says World War II veteran Arthur Grabiner. "I enjoyed reading about the theatre community rallying to move forward, adapt and continue to entertain despite the challenges of separation."
Like Timmins, Grabiner also watched many streaming shows during the lockdown, particularly from the Queens-based Titan Theatre Company, whose performances he had previously attended in person. "Seeing the familiar faces of Titan's cast members, albeit virtually, felt like I was reuniting with old friends," he says.
Attending Hadestown through the TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program was a welcome opportunity for Grabiner to "get out among people" again. "Reunions, parades, parties and trips were all cancelled due to COVID-19—much-anticipated camaraderie with my fellow World War II veterans was scrubbed," he says. Back at a Broadway show for the first time since theatres reopened, Grabiner says he was "delighted to catch up with fellow US Navy Veterans and tireless advocates" Vicki Bello, TDF's Veterans Theatregoing Program coordinator, and her husband, Joe.
"Bringing the vets back to Broadway has been heartwarming as we transition to the new normal," says Bello. "At each show, I see the veterans reconnect with one another. Every show has been like a reunion."
"What they're doing with the veterans is beautiful," says Vietnam vet Paul Colliton, who also saw many friends at Hadestown. "A lot of these guys are probably down and out, so this is a thing that really helps spark their morale."
Nicholas Sterghos, a US Army veteran who served in South Korea, Kuwait and Colorado, agrees. "We've been through a lot," he says. "It means so much to be with fellow veterans, enjoying the company and the culture together."
Top image: Arthur Grabiner, center, with his son, Douglas Grabiner, and aide, Angela Hussain, at Hadestown on Broadway. Photo by the author.