Two weeks ago, amid the new normal of hoarding and isolation, Bryan Buttler found himself in a Starbucks parking lot in Wayne. The back seat of his silver 2017 Nissan held a bag of precious cargo, hard-to-find Pedialyte for a friend of a friend — a mother desperate to find the electrolyte-replenishment beverage for her terminally ill child.
Buttler left the car, his friend opened her car door, grabbed the bag, and drove off.
“It was almost like a drug deal,” Buttler laughed.
It’s hard to find a laugh as the coronavirus makes its deadly march through the region. But Buttler is determined to spread a counterattack of kindness, community, and concern. It’s a mission made for a well-connected publicist, Buttler’s job in the pre-virus world.
He’s made a commitment to daily small acts of caring. “If I can do something each day — it makes me feel good and it spreads a sense of humanity,” he said.
Buttler, 37, sort of balding, sort of spiky-haired, wears a wry smile along with glasses both campy and conservative. A natural connector, he’s got friends and clients in theater, opera, and music circles in Philadelphia and beyond.
As a publicist, he has witnessed — and communicated — the devastation as theaters closed their doors. “There is a lot of uncertainty for me and what is going to happen with my clients,” he said, listing some on his roster — the Arden Theatre Co., the Wilma Theater, Simpatico Theatre, Theatre Horizon, Cirque du Soleil, all dark. Actors, set designers, costume makers and, yes, even publicists lose their income one darkened theater at a time.
And these days Buttler has time. Here’s how he described the Pedialyte drop on Facebook: “I just met my friend Lisa in a parking lot where it looked like we did a drug deal of Pedialyte,” he began, including a crying-with-laughter emoticon. “In all seriousness, I saw Lisa post on her Facebook that a friend of hers desperately needed it for her child with a feeding tube and it was nowhere to be found.
“I did a quick search of the Target app to find the store by me had some. A curbside pickup and plastic gloves later, here we are! I am trying desperately to do one good thing a day [for] someone else during this hot mess. I feel it brings a little joy.”
The friend, Lisa Sonneborn, directs media arts at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. She made another Pedialyte pickup and delivered bottles to her friend. “What was really lovely was that we soon had everything we needed for the short term,” said Sonneborn.
Sonneborn and Buttler had met as client and publicist when the Institute produced A Fierce Kind of Love, a play about Pennsylvania’s intellectual disability rights movement. “I love Bryan,” she said. “He brings amazing energy and positivity to everything he does."
“If he, as a public relations person, can elevate others to do the same, it’s good,” she said. “It’s a time we really need to be reminded of all the good we can do. We need to be reminded of all the good that is in the world.”
Some of Buttler’s daily do-good deeds involve care packages of bath salts and sanitary wipes. He ordered a gallon of hand sanitizer before it became scarce and has paid that forward, too.
“Sometimes it takes an emergency or a tragedy for us to realize how much a bit of kindness or help can mean to people. I think we are seeing that right now,” said Buttler, of King of Prussia. “I think people had forgotten what being nice means and that you don’t do it for any other reason than because you like people and you see a need.
“Even before this, we were craving a sense of goodwill that had been hard to find,” he said. “But we leveled the playing field in two weeks. Everyone is in the same boat. Before we were craving goodwill, but now we’re really craving it.”
Not surprisingly, many of Buttler’s daily deeds focus on theater.
“I realized that even when things get back to normal, it will never get back to normal for these organizations,” he said. “So many have been let go. Many of them are without ... jobs. All their gigs have been canceled — any type of performing arts, theater, live music. Many of them did not have an emergency plan. This is unprecedented."
Nationally, he’s using his publicist skills pro bono to help the Artist Relief Tree raise a million dollars to distribute small grants — $250 apiece — to performance artists worldwide impacted by COVID-19.
Locally, Buttler donated $50 of his own money to Theatre Horizon, which curtained The Agitators two weeks early. “For him to give back some of the fee we regularly pay him was meaningful,” said Artistic Director Nell Bang-Jensen.
Buttler’s and others’ donations allowed the Norristown theater to pay The Agitators’ personnel through its final performance March 22. Among those was designer Marie Laster, of Fairmount. She, in turn, donated $50 to Theatre Horizon.
For its part, Theatre Horizon has announced it will pay artists $45 for short videos. So, Liz Filios, a Northern Liberties actor who appeared in two Theatre Horizon shows, produced a delightful video to entertain homebound children and teach them about some unusual musical instruments.
Filios has lost nearly every gig. “It’s like being on a subway and it stops partway to where you are going,” said Filios. She teaches choral music in two West Philadelphia elementary schools; now they’re closed. “I was going to be singing at a nursing home. I can’t do that,” she said. “Almost every person I know is either completely unemployed or nearly unemployed.”
Filios spent her $45 on a $49.99 video editing program, “so I guess I’m out about $5.” The program will help her make more kids’ videos and include other unemployed actors and musicians. There’ll be an online pay-what-you-wish capacity, so that by helping bored kids, she can also help friends make the rent. “My intention is to share it with as many other artists as possible,” she said.
Buttler also donated money to Simpatico Theatre, which, on March 25, would have opened the world premiere of Philadelphia playwright Stephanie Kyung Sun Walter’s Esther Choi and the Fish That Drowned. “We are committed to paying all our contracted artists and technicians. That includes Bryan,” said Allison Heishman, artistic director. “He made a nice donation back to the company which I thought was very generous.”
“Bryan’s donation inspired me to make donations to other companies,” she said. Heishman donated to a live-stream performance by actor and musician Pax Ressler, singing from the upcoming album Queer Love Songs.
“There is so much of my work that I’ve lost,” said Ressler, who was performing in Shakespeare In Love, when it ended early at People’s Light in Malvern.
People’s Light paid personnel through the end of the run. “I have a lot of privileges. I have access to funds and a family network. So, I thought it would be good to give to the Philadelphia Performing Artists’ Emergency Fund.”
The March 17 concert raised about $850. Ressler forwarded half and soon learned that three artists had been helped. “I was overwhelmed by the generosity of folks.”
“When people are moved by generosity, they are much more ready to be generous themselves,” Ressler said. “These acts of kindness ripple into other things.”