Published on Medium on August 10, 2020
It was a sobering conversation. One of my friends, whom I consider a professional and personal role model, said this:
“I’ve come to accept that my theatre career is over.”
She was met with silence. Not out of surprise, but out of deep recognition that this could be true for us, too. Our Zoom connection flickered. No one knew what to say.
Before the pandemic put the U.S. in a stranglehold, my friend was #bookedandblessed. She’d moved across the country, East to West Coast, to accommodate all the work offers she was receiving. Now, with a schedule wiped clean due to COVID and absolutely no end in sight, plans once merely delayed are now scrapped completely. She can’t afford a year — at MINIMUM — of no work, she says, only to start from scratch once theaters begin to reopen. Because once theaters reopen, it won’t be like flipping a light switch and starting where we left off. Canceled seasons won’t just reappear on marquees. Canceled contracts won’t suddenly renew themselves. There is no going back. Because there won’t be jobs to go back to.
It’s looking more and more likely that, barring an incredible about-face like a spectacularly successful vaccine or a powerful and immediate treatment option, a majority of U.S. theaters won’t survive the pandemic. This includes theaters that were financially flourishing in the Before Times, like Mercury Theater Chicago. And along with these institutions, a majority of theatremakers — not just actors or directors, but costumers, musicians, composers, wig masters, props masters, designers, electricians, stage hands, carpenters, stage managers, company managers, house managers, administrators, wardrobe crew, production assistants, ticket sellers, concessions vendors, marketing directors, photographers, choreographers, venue staff — will not be able to wait this out.
It doesn’t help that most artists are notoriously underpaid to begin with. The American public knows this (and we know they know because they joke about it at dinner tables and even in the lobbies after our shows). What’s worse, many artists have seen their side hustles dry up, too; those who relied on the service and hospitality industries to pay the bills between gigs have nothing to fall back on. Now that the extra $600-a-week PUA benefits have ceased, and the virus continues to spread, artist-led households will take a potentially career-ending hit. And the venues that hire them will buckle alongside them.
Which will leave only the luckiest, and the wealthiest, hanging on by a thread. Who are these “lucky” few? As in all other industries: mostly white, mostly non-disabled, mostly cisgender. The communities that have been egregiously underrepresented on American stages and screens are the same communities that have been hit hardest, physically and economically, by the pandemic: Black people, Indigenous people, and other People of Color; people with disabilities; trans and GNC folks. If these artists do not have the means to remain in the industry, it will eradicate decades they have spent fighting to make the arts more equitable. The loss will be incalculable.
The joke of the “starving artist” has never been less funny. It sends the message that we had this coming. That we signed up for this when we pursued a “less traditional” career path. And now the joke’s on us.
No one is arguing that actors and technicians are essential during a pandemic the way healthcare providers and food service workers are. But there is a tremendous lack of understanding of the working artist in this country. And this critical gap in appreciation and value between working artists and other tradesfolk is leading us toward disaster.
This shouldn’t be the case. The arts and culture sector contributes more to the U.S. GDP than transportation and construction combined, and five times more than the agricultural sector: a whopping $877 billion, or 4.5% of the GDP, in 2017. It employs more than 5 million Americans in wage-and-salary jobs, and pre-COVID, this number was growing. And this stretches far beyond New York or Chicago or Los Angeles: The arts contributed $72.8 billion to the economies of rural states (states in which 30 percent or more of the population live in rural areas). Contrary to the mystifyingly popular belief, the arts are a major economic driver all across the nation.
Of the various sub-industries in our creative sector, the performing arts alone contributed more than $52 billion in 2017. Theaters play a large role in this. And not just Broadway houses: Regional powerhouses like Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, OR), American Players Theatre (Spring Green, WI), and Utah Shakespeare Festival (Cedar City, UT) attract tens of thousands of attendees each year — and quite a lot of revenue — to the small towns in which they’re based. Smaller cities like Milwaukee, Denver, and Salt Lake City employ thousands of artists and arts workers every year. In these communities, not just the big-city markets, artists are raising families, paying taxes, sending their children to school, volunteering in their neighborhoods, voting in elections…just like construction workers, teachers, farmers, contractors, nurses, bankers, and you.
We are like you. Some of us are in unions. Some got our training through apprenticeships, journeyman contracts, and strokes of good luck. Some hold multiple degrees. Some work as freelancers; others have year-round salaries with benefits. We are old and young, single and married, parents and grandparents. We make our homes in every major city and many small towns, too. Our comedy clubs, dance companies, symphonies, film festivals, and art galleries fuel your restaurants, bars, hotels, coffee shops, and markets, and vice versa. The perceived distance between us is a fallacy.
The working artist needs the working tradesperson, the working financier, the working educator, the working technician, the working healthcare provider, the working business owner to be in their corner. If there is to be an arts sector to return to, then artists need assistance now. This is not pity. This is basic recognition that there is a valuable industry hit much harder than most others on the simple basis that it is impossible to produce its product in a socially distant, financially viable way. This is not charity. This is solidarity.
Don’t expect these new executive orders to save our working artists. Get on the phone and demand your senators’ immediate action in renewing the $600-a-week PUA benefits through the end of the year. Sign a petition. Send an email or two. Learn more about how your state compares in allocating funds to the arts. Donate to professional theaters (especially if you’ve been enjoying Hamilton and Newsies on Disney+, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s free musicals on YouTube, or National Theatre At Home). Don’t ask for refunds for canceled concerts or postponed performances; donate the cost back to the venue. Buy tickets for next year’s shows now. If your business is hiring remote workers, be on the lookout for out-of-work artists. Check on your artist friends. Wear your mask.
And pay for your artist-friends’ art. If they’re posting videos, recording dance routines, offering pay-what-you-can voice lessons, Venmo them. Buy their album, don’t just stream it. Sign up for their Patreons. Combat the culture of consuming art for free while its creators are facing financial disaster. These are not ambling bohemians looking for handouts while they pursue their muse; these are experienced, hardworking neighbors out of their jobs through no fault of their own.
They — we — are desperate to get back to work. Don’t leave us behind.