Simple enough idea: Well-intended theater project in the Chicago suburbs responds to the coronavirus pandemic by doing fundraiser readings of plays in YouTube livestreams, with viewers invited to donate. Any money raised goes in part to Mount Sinai Hospital on Chicago’s West Side.
Unremarkable until you get to the play casts: Florence Pugh, Oscar-nominated for “Little Women.” Brandon Flynn of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” Margaret Qualley, Willa Fitzgerald, Justice Smith. All young Hollywood actors. The organizer, director and casting agent of this endeavor, titled Acting for a Cause, is Brando Crawford, himself just 24.
Acting for a Cause has done a handful of plays since late March, including “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” in adaptations by Writers Theatre’s Michael Halberstam. Friday’s installment was “Pride and Prejudice” with Kat McNamara of the CW series “Arrow.”
Crawford, a one-time Chicago theater actor — he was in 2015’s “Martyr” at Steep Theatre — said he didn't start out with a magic contact list. The time just turned out to be right to pick up the phone.
“It was the first week of the quarantine,” he said. Everyone was stuck in that moment of wondering what they could do in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and what would happen next. “I thought, if I just jump in and do this early, I might get some ‘yes’s.’ ”
With an idea in mind, he was able to get the contacts for representatives and spokespeople for a few actors with screen credits. One of the first “yes” answers, he says, was from Auli‘i Cravalho, the voice of the title character in Disney’s “Moana.” She appeared in both the first play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” on March 27, and the recent “Hamlet.”
After he pulled off “Earnest,” he said, “it became a domino effect,” with young actors recommending other actors he might try to contact. A lot of young screen talents suddenly had the time and motivation to do something as a benefit. Crawford said he’s not afraid of leveraging his generation’s preferred methods of communication and appealing directly to actors via Instagram messages and the like.
“But mostly, I just kept asking everyone, 'Do you know anyone else? Do you know anyone else?,' ” he said. “That question got me 33% of my casts.”
Everyone involved is volunteering their time, he said. Crawford has assistance from his mother, Maria Emilia Fermi, founder of the Language and Music School in the Hales Mansion in Oak Park, Ill., and he recently hired press agents.
But he said otherwise, Acting for a Cause, which itself is just the project title, not a nonprofit, is just him; the title itself came from a student project he was involved in while at Oak Park River Forest High School. Donations for the first couple plays were done via GoFundMe (totaling about $1,800, according to the page); recently the fundraising has been done via the Los Angeles-based Entertainment Industry Foundation.
A spokesperson for the EIF, which organizes charitable projects on behalf of people in the film industry, confirmed that funds from Acting for a Cause go to the nonprofit and, in turn, in part to the COVID-19 response at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago.
As far as time, Crawford doesn’t require a huge commitment from the actors. He has the gestation of new plays down to a week. The streams happen Friday night, after which he says thanks to the cast and asks for ideas for the next one.
“By Monday, Tuesday, I have a play, and I’m casting. An actor might show interest, but then have a schedule conflict,” he said.
On Wednesday, he does some one-on-one rehearsals; on Thursday, there’s a group rehearsal — all streams are via Zoom — “and then, we put the show up on Friday,” he said. He laughs at his own rapid pace.
“I like working off of momentum,” he said.
Actress Willa Fitzgerald (the lead on MTV’s “Scream”) agreed to play the lead in Acting for a Cause’s “Hamlet” on a whim, she said Thursday by phone from her New York apartment. Crawford’s camp got in touch with her via her public relations team.
“When someone offers you the role of Hamlet, you just say yes,” she said. “I’ve always been a theater nerd. So especially now in quarantine, to spend hours of my time with Shakespeare, it was an obvious yes for me.”
She said she learned about the philanthropic nature of the project second. Once cast early in the week, she spent until Friday rereading and re-familiarizing herself the play. The challenge, she said, was making a reading of the play compelling, Zoom not being Shakespeare’s natural medium.
“It’s hard to make Shakespeare work on camera,” she said.
Most of the project’s titles have been in the public domain; an exception was Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,” which Crawford conceded was done partly on the sly. The rights had been “more or less approved” by showtime April 10, he said, and they went ahead with the stream.
That one, starring Pugh, had more than 20,000 views on YouTube. “Romeo and Juliet” had 25,000 views, with the EIF reporting that it received about $1,200 in donations.
Halberstam said he never had Crawford in one of his casts at Writers, but has known him since the young actor asked him to come see the Steep Theatre show.
“Am I surprised at what he’s accomplished? I guess I’m never surprised by young entrepreneurial spirit,” he said in an interview Thursday. “He wants to be a visionary. He is a visionary.”
Along with offering scripts, Halberstam said he’s extended coaching to Crawford on how to direct those in his casts who are unfamiliar with, say, a dense page of Shakespeare.
Crawford pointed to the audience he’s received as an unexpected benefit — a constant stream of viewer comments have accompanied the YouTube broadcasts with fans of the cast members hailing from around the globe.
“We’re introducing a lot of young people to these classics,” he said. “You know, we’re getting fans of ‘Riverdale’ who perhaps have not read ‘Hamlet.’ That’s an unexpected impact.”
He said he’s hoping to parlay this whole experience into some kind of show-business future. After all, he’s already directed an Oscar nominee.