courtesy clay elder
Company actor Claybourne Elder is having a full-circle moment.
As he prepared to return to the stage on Saturday after a bout with COVID, the actor offered to buy tickets for several lucky followers to see the Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical in which he stars. The gesture was inspired, in part, by one of his first trips to New York City 15 years ago, when the actions of a generous stranger encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a performer.
"I went to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in the standing-room [section]," Elder recalls to PEOPLE. "At the end of it, I was walking out, and this man and a woman walked up to me and said, 'Hey, you look like you were enjoying that show more than people who are sitting in the expensive seats.' "
The man handed him $200 and made Elder promise he would use the money to see Sweeney Todd starring Patti LuPone. The production was "incredible," but that act of generosity would make a far larger impact on Elder's career.
"I was deciding whether or not I wanted to move to New York," he says. "I grew up in Utah, and I was thinking New York is this big, scary city. Having this stranger do this thing is one of the reasons that led me to think like, 'It's going to be okay, and I should move to New York.' "
Now, Elder isn't just admiring LuPone's work from the audience. He's working alongside her in Broadway's Company at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Last week, the actor shared his experience in an Instagram post to explain why he'd decided to sponsor several tickets to his own show. Alongside the message, he asked his friends and followers: "If you know this guy - let me know. I would love to thank him."
As it would turn out, Elder was more closely connected to this good samaritan than he thought. After sharing his story, Elder tells PEOPLE he received a message from a friend who knew Mark Howell.
"He sent me a text saying, 'Hey, can you call me right now? It's important,' " Elder recalls. "And I was like, 'Oh, that seems strange.' And I called him, and he said, 'I saw your post, and I saw your picture of the man who gave you the money 15 years ago. He's one of my best friends.' "
It had been years since Howell had thought about that then-23-year-old he met outside the Circle in the Square Theatre. When Howell received a call from his old friend, he never suspected who would be waiting on the other line of the three-way FaceTime.
"[Claybourne] just started telling the story and said, 'We went to see Putnam County Spelling Bee.' And as soon as he said that, I just said, 'No way,' " Howell tells PEOPLE. "Because I knew exactly who he was."
To learn that, not only had his random act of kindness inspired Elder to pursue his dreams, it also encouraged him to give back to other theatergoers in the same way left Howell overwhelmed, to say the least.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.
courtesy clay elder
"It really made me think about how powerful acts of kindness can be," he says. "I did it, and I didn't think about it most of the time. It's really affirming to hope that all of your random acts of kindness ripple at some level in the recipients' lives, but the level to which this has been amplified and come back around... [that] Clay was motivated to do the same thing for strangers is just really powerful."
Elder maintains that the experience has been "one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened" to him. He is taking it as a sign to continue paying it forward. After almost two years of devastating losses for the theater, his friends and followers helped him secure over $5,000 to buy Company tickets to those who couldn't otherwise afford them.
"This is one of the craziest coincidences of my life," he says. "Being an actor in the theater is so important to me, and it's so central to my life that the fact that this thing happened and has come full circle now is just insane."
He adds: "It's an incredibly moving way to come back to the show."