Strip Down and Save Lives with Broadway Bares

Hey all! It’s Keats with a much more personal story than I usually share. Careful, my vulnerability is about to show - but it’s for a good cause! I want to tell you a little about my favorite charity: Broadway Bares.

Whenever I have too much down time (and I’ve finished binging everything possible on multiple streaming platforms), the same questions pop up in my head. Am I doing enough as a human to be considered a positive, contributing factor in society? Is being a performer a completely selfish career? How can I use my curated talents to do actual good in the world? Are there any worthwhile volunteer opportunities for dancers? Do I stop performing and go back to school to be a doctor or become a scientist who figures out how to get rid of all the plastic in the oceans? This existential dread has led to some serious moments where I thought I should leave the business. Instead, I discovered that benefit concerts were a way to put my abilities and talents to philanthropic use. Though NYC is chock full of them my favorite charity event of the year is Broadway Bares, or any other fundraiser or benefit concert that is put on by Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA).

at some point we have to be willing to help others

I first became aware of BC/EFA the way I think most people do. I was watching Billy Elliot on Broadway (the first Broadway show I ever saw!), and at the end of the show one of the actors stepped forward to make a speech about how twice a year the Broadway community comes together to raise funds by asking patrons to donate cash into their red buckets as you exit the theater. The red buckets, while a very memorable symbol of what BC/EFA does, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS Red Bucket Foliies
Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS Red Bucket Foliies

Since its creation in 1987, BC/EFA has raised over $300 million to help people all across the nation receive life saving resources while they fight their daily battle with HIV/AIDS and other medical issues, especially women’s health. They have multiple yearly benefits, such as the Easter Bonnet, the Red Bucket Follies, and the Fire Island Dance Festival. I’ve performed in all of these, and while they were all amazing experiences, none of them hold a candle to my favorite, Broadway Bares.

Broadway Bares is especially inspiring to me because of how it started. Here’s the short version: In 1992, Broadway director Jerry Mitchell was watching friends pass away from this terrible disease - and he knew he had to do something. So, he grabbed a handful of other chorus boys, taught them some burlesque choreography and they performed it at the iconic (and now closed) LGBT club Splash Bar one night at 9:30pm. The owner was so impressed by their solo strips that he kicked everyone out of the bar and charged them a cover to get back in to watch them perform again at midnight. That night, they raised eight thousand dollars. 2018’s performance, which showcased two hundred performers at Hammerstein Ballroom, raised almost two million dollars. I mean come on - how could that story not inspire you to want to be a part of the good that this show does!?

I have heard Jerry tell this story in person twice now and it moves me every time. It proves that we can use our form of entertainment not just to entertain but to do good! Another reason I adore Bares is the Stripathon. Sounds sexy right? Well, it can be, but it really is just the name of the online fundraiser that precedes the main stage show. Stripathon started in 2004 and has been a great way performers could choose to raise money online. One year when Nick Kenkel was directing Bares, he had made it mandatory. He realized that there was a finite amount of money to be made from ticket sales. Legally, you can only sell so many tickets to a venue, right? As a result, in order to be cast in the annual show, every performer must crowdfund online for the weeks leading up to the show. Fun fact, most of the money raised from Bares is made from the Stripathon, not from the ticket sales.

the goal is to excite people into donating by posting increasingly scantily clad photos

While there are no set rules to the Stripathon, the goal is to excite people into donating by posting increasingly scantily clad photos as you earn more money & get closer to the performance date. And people get pretty creative! I’ve seen everything from giveaways, to hosting drawings at bars, to making weird videos of them eating in their kitchen, or telling you how your money helps while they are showering. Honestly, anything that is legal and can be monetized is fair game. The top earner last year raised 55,000 dollars. My first year, I raised just under $2,000 - a record I have already passed this year (and I still have a few weeks left to go!)

I have learned a ton from fundraising. I remember watching friends do it in the past and thinking “ugh it’s Bares season. Here comes everyone using this as an excuse to show off their thirst traps.” First of all- I didn’t realize how much planning and effort goes into setting up photo shoots, planning posts, thanking donors, and setting up prizes. So, if a participant gets some validation from posting a sexy pic or two, it is well deserved. I do think that most people honestly do it because it feels so good to do good. Maybe that’s selfish of me and I’ve been trying to get away from that, but I can’t help that I feel good knowing that for every $25 I make, 20 fresh meals are made at a soup kitchen.

Justin Keats for Broadway Bares
Justin Keats for Broadway Bares

I also want to dissuade some rumors about Bares that used to make me less interested in participating. I used to think that I was too skinny to be in the show. That I wasn’t hot enough. I didn’t have enough instagram followers. This is all malarkey I tell you, MALARKEY! I am bummed I didn’t do it before last year. Yes, the show is a burlesque style and it’s about showing skin - but it’s REALLY about raising money. The whole thing is a charity. So if you’re willing to dance and take it off to entertain others for a good cause then that’s the number one criteria met. It doesn’t matter what shape or size you are, whose choreography you’re performing, what your costume is, or if you’re a lead strip or not. It's about putting on a good show that will make people excited to buy a ticket and donate again next year. It’s marketing genius!

If you’re around NYC on June 16th and can grab a ticket! I highly recommend it. It’s not only a great way to spend Father’s Day but this year is extra special since it’s not only during LGBT Pride months but it’s also World Pride in NYC and if that weren’t enough, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The theme this year, Take Off, emphasizes the importance of knowing LGBTQ history and remembering all those who came before who fought for our freedoms today… but still sexy.

If you’re not in NY for pride- I wanna encourage you to donate to anyone’s Stripathon page. You can donate to mine, but it doesn’t have to be my page to affect change. Every donation size does real good; but just to put it in perspective for you: $50 keeps electricity on in a home of need, $100 gives someone healthcare that they couldn’t afford, and $250 covers the copay of someone’s life saving antiretroviral medication. So feel free to feel good about donating! Also, if you’re thinking “this is just a New Yorker thing,” take a look at what organizations near you benefit from the money BC/EFA raises.

I also want to take a moment to spotlight someone who, to me, is the face of BC/EFA. Valerie Lau-Kee Lai is currently Producing Director for BC/EFA; she was also the first person at Fire Island Dance Festival to teach me how important the sense of community was within this organization. Our industry feels so large, but as she says, when you’re working with BC/EFA “Suddenly what was an immense and sprawling community became [her] community.” Valerie does an amazing job of making everyone feel a part of the BC/EFA family.

Before joining BC/EFA full time in 2014, Val was a Stage Manager and volunteered in BC/EFA events starting in 1999. Over the years she has helped do so much good! “People come to BC/EFA because they want to be there, not because they HAVE to be.” The sense of community is so strong within the BC/EFA performers. I have heard often that Bares feels like a homecoming event. Everyone is excited to see who will be doing it again each year. There are people who have left the biz and still raise money and perform in Bares each year. It speaks volumes to how strong this community is.

I can’t help that I feel good knowing that for every $25 I make, 20 fresh meals are made at a soup kitchen

I asked Valerie what she wishes everyone knew about BC/EFA that they might not know and her answer is beautiful. “There are two things that I think are incredibly interesting. The first is about the impact that volunteerism offers. The donation of time, talents, goods and infrastructure allow Broadway Cares to operate on an 82/18 ratio. What this means is that 82 cents of every dollar donated turns into grants for people in need. Also, grants are given very soon after each appeals period. This means that we are not holding on to money. Literally, each fiscal year, we start at a funding meter of 0.”

“The bigger picture is this: we [theater people] are consistently part of this community whether we are working, or not. All the people who I have worked with over the years will always have periods of unemployment, and someday we will work together again. Most likely it will be on a Broadway Cares event. Broadway Cares is part of the warp and weft of the fabric of Broadway, for that I am grateful and awed.”

Talking to her, I’m again re-inspired. Now, I know that most of what BC/EFA does to raise money takes place in NY and not all performers live here, but there are still ways for any performer to help no matter where you’re located:

  • Host a benefit in your hometown, and consider donating the proceeds to BC/EFA (I know many dancers on tour who have done this).
  • Join the Stripathon fundraiser (whether you can perform in Bares or not) by posting your own sexy photos! The fundraising continues way past the event and it’s never too late to sign up.
  • Set up a Facebook donate button linked to the BC/EFA website on your personal page. Even just posting about it is enough; someone out there is always looking to do something charitable, but they might not know where to start.
  • Use your influence on social media to promote a cause like BC/EFA. Even just tagging @bcefa or #broadwaycares or #broadwaybares (or the handle of your favorite charity)  in an Instagram post gets their name out there.

The biggest point I want to drive home here is that as humans in society we can’t just focus on ourselves. Oh no, I feel another soap box/after school special moment happening but I can’t resist! We have to take care of each other. That doesn’t mean we can’t work in industries that make us happy or do things selfishly, but at some point we have to be willing to help others. Perhaps by donating your time, your money, and/or your joy, you too will feel the bursts of neurotransmitters that will pat you on the back and make you feel like it was the right thing to do. So go! Do good. You’ll feel good and the world will be a better place for it.

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.