Performing Arts and the Pandemic

Yesterday 400 freelance musicians gathered in Parliament Square in London, with more freelance musicians in Birmingham Centenary Square, to bring attention to the situation they are in at the moment. The ensemble played and then fell silent to symbolise the effect of the pandemic shutting hospitality venues in March, effectively silencing these musicians and preventing them from earning the majority of their income. This is the case for all of the arts as theatres, concert halls, gig venues, comedy venues, museums and art galleries have all been closed. Many, many freelance musicians have not qualified for any of the pandemic financial support schemes so have simply lost their incomes. The financial support packages that have been announced for the arts were aimed at arts venues rather than the individuals who earn their livelihoods performing in them.

The pandemic has had an enormous effect on so many lives, but in this post I want to talk about the performing arts industry, and especially music (although pretty much everything I say here could be said about any of the performing arts) because this is a blog about music and getting children into music. Live performance is such an exciting thing to be a part of. The anticipation of going to a concert, or play or gig is almost as good as the event itself. From when you get hold of the ticket, to counting down the days to the date of the show, to sitting in the auditorium waiting for the show to begin. As a child going to my first shows – ballets, plays, concerts – I remember how exciting it was when I heard the orchestra tune up, saw the lights above the audience dim and heard the children around me exclaim knowing the show was about to begin. As an adult going to see a show, I will get dressed up, perhaps go for dinner before the show; go for drinks afterwards to talk about the show I have just seen. It is a whole event, a whole evening.

The audience is as much part of the show as the performers. They feed off each other. The atmosphere is part of the event. Knowing that you are in the same building as the people performing for you can be spellbinding, mesmerising. You can actually feel how the rest of the audience is reacting to the show, you experience it together, and it can be immensely powerful, It can make you fall in love with theatre, with music, with storytelling. I don’t know about you, and this is something I am trying to change, but when watching TV at home I often end up looking at social media on my phone. I don’t concentrate as much on the show in front of me and so am not as invested in it.

As a Front of House Manager I have been present for many, many different shows. From the glitz and glamour of televised award shows, to world class orchestral concerts, to community shows, to school end of year concerts. I have seen people from all walks of life coming to these shows. I have seen people fall in love with theatre, both performers and audience members. I have seen proud parents watch their children perform for them. I have seen children stand on stage and realise they can hold the attention of all the people watching them, that people will listen to them.

I know everyone will say this about their industry, about the thing they are passionate about, but performing arts are important. Not just for people who perform, but also for people who attend them. Audiences get to see an event. It is an escape from reality. Performing arts can entertain people, educate people, can tell people’s stories, can show you what life is like for people who are just like you, or who are from completely different backgrounds to you without lecturing people.

We have heard the phrase “world beating” quite a lot in recent months, but our performing arts industry is actually world beating. Our orchestras are in demand all over the world, our actors appear on TV screens and cinema screens and stages all over the world. Our pop music industry is incredibly successful. Tourists come to this country to see the shows our performers put on. We are the country that produced Shakespeare.

There has been a lot of attention in the last couple of days on something Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in response to the musicians’ protests in London and Birmingham yesterday. The message that performers took from the interview he gave was that musicians, comedians, actors, dancers needed to adapt and retrain. I know that he has clarified that his comments were about employment in general and that he wasn’t saying that performers needed to ‘get a proper job’ (many of us who have worked in the performing arts have been told exactly this by people in other sectors, in my case my father told me on several occasions I should get a proper job because I earned very little money).

The comments he made were in response to a question about the musicians’ protests, however. He was asked what he had to say to professional musicians. Musicians who, through no fault of their own (like everyone else who has lost their job as a result of the pandemic), cannot do the bulk of their work. The venues have shut. Mass gatherings are not allowed. And it is simply not economically viable to stage shows in a theatre or concert hall with social distancing measures in place. Performing arts need bums on seats. They need full audiences.

Yes, many arts activities can take place online, but it is not the same. I mentioned above that the audience and performers feed off each other. It is easier to concentrate and lose yourself in the show when you are attending live performance. I have taken my two children to see some shows, as readers of this blog will know, and they have sat and watched and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have tried to get them to watch online concerts, and they get distracted by going off to look at toys, running around the room and generally not concentrating, because we are watching at home and not in a special space, having built up to going to see a show. They have not seen the concert as a special event. It’s just like watching the TV that they can do any time.

This is what Rishi Sunak said in his interview

ITV Interviewer: “If you are a professional musician, what is your message right now? If they can’t earn enough money to live, is your message to them, you’re going to have to get another job?”

RS: “I think my simple message to everyone is we’re trying to do everything we can to protect as many jobs as possible.”

ITV Interviewer: “But they don’t think you are. In that sector, they just don’t think you are”

RS: “It’s a very sad time, 3 quarters of a million people have already lost their jobs. We know that and that is likely to increase and many more people will. I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis. That’s why we have put a lot of our extra resource into trying to create new opportunities for people. So our Kickstart scheme, for example, for young people who are most at risk of becoming unemployed all the way up to the age of 24 are going to benefit from a fully funded job placement of high quality.”

ITV Interviewer: “That’s a different job, isn’t it? That is you saying go and get another job.”

RS: “That is a fresh and new opportunity for people, that is exactly what we should be doing”

ITV Interviewer: “But we are a country that have created so many fabulous musicians and artists and actors, and you’re effectively saying, Look I know it’s hard, but maybe go and get another job.”

RS: “You’re not being quite right that there is no work available for everybody at all. Funnily enough, as in all walks of life, everyone’s having to adapt I’m getting emails and seeing how theatre companies are adapting and putting on different kinds of performances. It is possible to do theatrical performances online as well and for people to engage with them that way and for new business models to emerge. Plenty of music lessons are happening online, certainly in my household and elsewhere. So, yes, can things happen in exactly the way they did, no, but everyone is having to find ways to adapt.”

Now I do not think that this will be the end of performing arts. There will always be musicians, and actors, dancers, artists and comedians. As a species we love performing, we love story telling, we need to share our experiences. There will be a time when we can go to see live performance again without worrying about social distancing.

But at what cost, and how many amazing performers will have left the profession because they have ‘had to adapt’? How many venues will they have to perform in? Where are all of the alternative jobs for performers to retrain for? How many people are chasing any job that currently exists?

The arts is a massive contributor to the GDP of this country. The arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion per year to the UK economy, and that is before you factor in the money that people spend in restaurants and bars before and after the shows they see; the money they spend in transport costs to get there, or hotel accommodation for a special concert; the money tourists who come over to go to see a show at, say, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and then spend the rest of their holiday at other tourism destinations; the money people spend to buy an outfit to wear for a special occasion.

The only reason that this whole industry is struggling is because of the pandemic. Yes, social distancing has to take place, I am not arguing that any restrictions should be lifted at all. I am not arguing that performing artists are any more important than anyone else whose employment has been affected by the pandemic. But once this is all over, and it will be one day even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, we will want to go back to see concerts, plays, comedians, gigs. We will want to watch good new TV (actors on TV generally train by acting on stage), or go to the cinema again. We will want to hear new music on the radio. If musicians and other artists have no financial support and have to adapt by probably finding other work, then I worry about what we as a country will have lost, how long we will have to wait before we can have our actually world beating, world class entertainments industry back?

Arts organisations are seen as elitist, only for rich people. Well, they certainly will only be for rich people if tickets to see a performance are more expensive to combat the fact that half the auditorium is empty. It will only be for the rich if teachers have to increase their prices for lessons because they have fewer pupils/no other work and have to ‘adapt’ the way they work and how they earn money to what work is available. The strides arts organisations have made in opening up their work to a wider audience, subsidising ticket prices etc, this may all fall by the wayside, that work may disappear.

It is all such a shame.

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