"You never know what a person is going through. A small act of kindness, it doesn't just make their day better—which hopefully it does—but you don't know what it's going to do to them in the long term. You don't know what they're going through and how that can actually turn them around," says Claybourne Elder, speaking of an act of kindness that was granted him 15 years ago.
The Broadway actor has told the story a couple of times on social media as it all unfolded, but here's a quick recap: Fifteen years ago, Elder had come to New York for a visit, spending the week buying as many Broadway standing room and rush tickets that his small budget could afford. A stranger noticed how much he and his friend were enjoying The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and gave them $200 to go see Sweeney Todd. "It'll change your life," the stranger said. It did.
In December of last year, Elder, who is currently appearing in Company, put an offer on Instagram for two free tickets to the Tony-winning revival and shared the story of the encounter. "So I'm giving away two tickets to the show. Because, I don't know, I want to do something to celebrate - pay it forward - express gratitude," the post read. Other friends chipped in and the offer for two tickets turned into an offer for 10 tickets. He also posted a photo he had taken with the stranger those 15 years ago, and because the world is a small place, and the theatre community even smaller, one of his friends (Douglas Sills, actually) knew the man and put them in touch.
Elder recently shared the story on This American Life with producer Elna Baker, whose long friendship with Elder (they grew up together) allowed him to emotionally dive even deeper into the tale than he previously had, speaking of his Mormon upbringing, his coming out, and the potential HIV diagnosis that inspired the escape to New York trip. Listen to the episode here.
"He had no idea that week was one of the worst weeks of my life and a huge turning point for me, deciding what I wanted to do, which almost sounds a little dramatic, but I was really facing my mortality that week, which makes you think about what you want in your life and how you want your life to look," Elder told Playbill.
The reunion with Mark Howell (the generous stranger), delving back into that difficult time of his life, and the response to his first ticket giveaway encouraged Elder to keep going with his ticket initiative, now called City of Strangers (a nod to a Sondheim lyric in "Another Hundred People" from Company).
It was also thinking about who exactly he was sending to the theatre with the free tickets. As a young man just out of school, that $200 gift allowed Elder to see a show that was more difficult to access with his modest means. "During the pandemic, all of us lost our jobs. We all went into caves, and I think we were all worried about what was going to happen, but I kept worrying about the next generation of actors coming up. When I was struggling it was hard enough, but I feel like for recent graduates of the past couple of years, everything has changed. The same survival jobs don't exist. Rents are increasing. People are expected to make audition tapes at home at their own expense. Things are a lot harder now and it was already hard. Broadway tickets are more expensive now than they ever have been, and it's such an important thing to be able to see, at the highest level, the art you are trying to create."
City of Strangers, which Elder and his husband Eric Rosen are in the process of making an official nonprofit organization, has purchased over 1,300 tickets for audience members who might not have been able to afford the ticket prices. The outreach has gone beyond struggling performers to include students, New York City arts teachers, life-long NYC residents but first-time theatregoers, as well as connections made with partnering organizations Covenant House, Arthur Miller Foundation, and the Wendy Wasserstein Project.
"What we're trying to do is help people who can't afford to get in the door," says Elder.
Until the organizations 501c3 nonprofit status is finalized, strangers who wish to purchase tickets for someone can donate through a GoFundMe set up by Elder, and access for tickets will be announced on the City of Strangers Instagram page, where one can see photos of Elder with the groups of people who have benefited from the ticket initiative (like the photo he took with then stranger Mark Howell outside Circle in the Square 15 years ago).
Although Company on Broadway closes July 31, Elder won't long be a stranger for audiences. He starts filming the second season of HBO Max's The Gilded Age the following week.