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Can Performing Arts Bloom Again After the Pandemic?

A photograph depicting an empty theatre captured by Jesús M Chamizo entitled “From the Stage” won the 2020 International Photography Award (IPA)

December 2019, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan, China. Not much of a concern to us since we could not imagine that a virus would travel all the way to Europe. Even so, how bad of a sickness could it cause? Nothing to worry about. Life continued its normal course.

January 2020, the virus reaches Europe. Later that month the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

March, the situation starts becoming more serious. The number of people who had contracted the virus started rising steadily. 10 new cases, 23 new cases, 54 new cases, 100 cases… People rushed to stores to get supplies of food, non-perishable items and…toilet paper. Panic was installed. By the end of the month, a pandemic was declared.

Many measures were taken in order to bring a halt to the spread of the virus. At the beginning of the year many of us would have never even thought of the possibility of a lockdown that would force all the population to stay at home and only leave the house if it was “absolutely essential,” yet it proved to be our only solution to the problem. Children have become accustomed to online school while adults had to turn their bedrooms into offices in order to continue their jobs. However, among all these changes that have forced us to keep our distance from one another, how are the people whose jobs depend on gathering large audiences of people in one room surviving?

Performers have arguably been the most effected by the lockdown that put a lock on concert venues, theatres, operas and other cultural institutions. While accountants, programmers and even teachers have quickly adapted to working from home once lockdown was installed, artists found it more difficult to comply with changes since their jobs (and hence income) greatly depend on the availability of performance venue and a live audience to watch their work.

What have artists been doing during the pandemic?

Since March, festivity halls and venues have been forced to turn off their lights in order to protect both the performers and the audience. Nevertheless, creativity always finds its way. Theatres and operas have been dusting their shelves, picking tapes of shows from their archives that have been made available online in order to bring some musical joy during these trying times. Among the institutions that have taken this step are the Lincoln Center in the United States, which has set out the “Lincoln Center at home” programme, as well as USA’s Metropolitan Opera which has arranged “The Met Opera on Demand,” aiming to bring a part of the musical experience to the safety of people’s homes. Moreover, a number of artists have decided to move their performances online, live streaming shows through various channels. One example is five-time Grammy award winner Billie Eilish who was forced to cancel her tour when the pandemic hit, but nonetheless found a way to connect with fans by organizing a livestream concert.

Some of these livestreams and past performances are freely available for anyone to watch, while others require a set fee in order to be viewed. Depending on the artist or institution organising the programmes, the money collected is then either gained by the performers, or donated to help those affected by the pandemic. Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra

McDonald singing "The Ladies Who Lunch” in a livestream concert dedicated to composer Stephen Sondheim's 90th birthday

Have performers received any help during the pandemic?

Since more and more performers became unemployed, they turned to institutions set up to help them get through hard times as such. The Actors Fund of America for instance has received 15,000 requests for aid in the first three months of the pandemic alone, and proceeded to distribute more than $15,000,000 to those in need.

As for political officials, most governments have been trying to support the Arts sectors in a way or another. However, considering that all industries have been affected, ranking their importance, as well as the damage they have suffered and thus distributing aid accordingly has been quite a tough task. Even so, political administrators around the world have set aside resources to help creative industries as well. The Australia Council for the Arts has redirected $5m from available fund to provide immediate relief to Australian artists, art workers, and art organisations. Arts Council England has released plans for a £160 million emergency response package that will give £20million to artists, creatives and freelancers, with grants of up to £2,500 each as a way to help performers.

Even so, certain action have led entertainers to believe that their jobs are not essential or beneficial to a country’s development. One such example comes from the UK where a government backed CyberFirst campaign depicting a ballet dancer called Fatima received tonnes of backlash, later having to be removed. The text in the advertisement reads: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)”, alongside the tagline “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.” The advert suggests that one day she will put away her silly dreams of dancing for a living and get a real job. Moreover, the bracketed phrase “she just doesn’t know it yet” may come across as a threat, implying that whether she wants it or not, Fatima will be forced to give up her job in the arts industry and actually benefit the country by getting a job in cyber. As imagined, the campaign received a lot of outcry since the government is undermining and dismissing performing arts even though the sector contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and generates 363,700 jobs.

What will live performances look like after the pandemic?

Once the pandemic is officially over will attending a play, a concert or even a seasonal music festival be the same, as we know it to be, or will creative industries be pushed to a tipping point? Perhaps concert venue sitting plans will be reimagined in order to prevent the spread of germs. Perhaps everything will return to normal and theatre doors will be flung open to welcome hundreds of spectators at once. The post-pandemic scenario depends on a large number of factors.

Apart from the health and safety factor, the economic situation will also have to be assessed. In an interview with The New Yorker, playwright David Henry Hwang stated that even after it is possible to begin bringing audiences back in theatres, and especially Broadway venues, organizers might find themselves needing to lower ticket prices in order to make performances more accessible and attractive to audiences who have been affected by the resulting Covid-19 recession.

For the moment, performers are patiently waiting for the starting whistle that will allow them to reconnect with audiences and revive the joy of live shows both for the crowd and for themselves. As for whether we will ever be able to experience concerts, summer festivals or theatrical performances, as we have known them, only time can tell.

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