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24 Ways to Support Live Performance During COVID-19

Photo by Wendy Wei:

“In the dark times will there be singing? Yes. There will be singing about the dark times.” -Bertolt Brecht

It’s been a bit shit lately. Perhaps it could get even shitter. First I’m going to tell you why it’s bad, then I’m going to suggest ways to make it a little bit less bad.

I work as a theatre-maker, actress, director, and clown in Johannesburg, South Africa. The hustle as a freelance artist is real, and the devastation of Covid-19 on the live performance industry has been even more real.

The crisis has affected not only theatre, dance, and opera companies, but collectives and individuals that freelance and work from performance to performance. Directors, stage managers, administrators, ushers, technicians, stagehands, performers, designers, musicians, and dramaturges commit to free-falling lifestyles with little job security within the contemporary creative economy. An economy built on live, in-person, face-to-face events. The loss of revenue from live events is debilitating, and only part of the story.

I call it the freelance dance!

Freelancing live performance artists typically eke out a living with a patchwork of regular, recurring, and once off part-time income jobs. Full-time jobs in live performance are few and far between and full-time jobs outside of the arts industry don’t often allow for the space and time needed to pursue artistic endeavors that will bolster your career.

I am fortunate to work many once-off and short term gigs, some of which recur every year at the same time happily keeping me bobbing along: I teach at tertiary institutions and schools, I get commissions to direct educational or industrial theatre works, choreograph performances for corporate events, facilitate workshops, market other productions, write copy, and transcribe recordings. Much of this work has dried up as businesses and institutions, including tertiary institutions, pinch their limited pennies. Many of my colleagues and friends in the industry wait tables, tend bars, nanny kids, work call centers, and dress up for kids’ birthday parties. A lot of which is now shut down. Relying on short term contracts and once-off gigs also means no medical aid, life insurance, or pension, and no access to unemployment funding during a crisis.

Sit back and take stock - of what?

An artistic career is not one you can put on hold for a few months. Fame and reputation are fickle in the arts industries. You are only as good as your last gig, show, or exhibition - or for as long as your audience remembers it. Generating buzz and word of mouth is incredibly important; attention and momentum fade quickly. People often speak about going back to normal: for many artists there never was a normal, and there is no job to go back to. In the arts, far more than almost any other field, success requires timing and luck - and Covid-19 is a case of really fuckin’ bad luck.

The truth of the matter is - people weren’t queueing outside the theatres for a ticket before the pandemic started. No matter how much we value the arts, funds are in limited supply and austerity is the word of the day. Theatres rely on loyal audiences with free time and disposable income to spend on regular attendance. In countries like South Africa with a 27.3% unemployment rate before Covid-19, it's unlikely theatres will bounce back after this.

What about live streaming and digital?

Ah yes, the free content. Free live shows on Instagram stories, Facebook live, and Youtube live, has made spending on the arts voluntary. Let’s not demonize digitization: there are great benefits for artists. It is an opportunity to experiment, collaborate more diversely, widen their audience scope, and grow a loyal following. However, artists aren’t the ones making money here, it's the platforms and companies advertising on these sites that are raking in the cash.

But most theatres are opening back up now!

It’s a great start, but I fear social distancing won’t work for the theatre or for many live venues. Most large theatres work on very fragile economic models, and smaller theatres work on door split deals. It's expensive and difficult to sanitize venues after shows. Besides audience numbers, there is the worry of spreading Covid-19 in cramped dressing rooms and backstage areas. Also, we need to project our voices in the theatre, and that usually involves a lot of spitting. Nevermind ruining all the urgency and tension from scenes by removing all the touching and romance. (Perhaps we’ll see the resurgence of the one-person mime performance?)

Moreover, live performance trades in vibe. It's about being there, being seen, and experiencing an ephemeral and never-to-be-perfectly-recreated moment together. It's about the high stakes. It's about the audience, crew, and performers dancing together on a tightrope of tension and the ever hovering possibility of a grand and incredible fall into the abyss.

Well, that was all a big downer, what can we do?

All is not lost. Here’s how you can support the vibe, galvanize audiences, and bolster artists. A list of 24 easy ways you can support arts and artists during and after a global pandemic:

  1. Emotional support. Now, more than ever reach out to your artist friends and ask them how they are, how you can help them, and just listen. Send a card, a letter, or a care package.

  2. Buy their shit! This seems obvious, right? But it can be hard to support live performers when there is nothing live to buy a ticket to. If they have a side hustle or business, consider supporting that. Or, if you have the know-how, consider helping them set up an e-commerce store to sell their side-talents.

  3. Data sponsorship! Hook them up to your data plan, share your wifi, or sponsor a month of data so they can get online and get working.

  4. Tech support! Branching from live into digital and film can be daunting, especially if you don’t have the right equipment. Got an old laptop? Hard drive? Camera? Buy them a month’s subscription to Adobe Premiere Pro! Consider sharing your resources and giving them a crash course in something you might know about.

  5. Support their campaigns! Find out with a simple post on your social media which of your friends has ongoing crowdfunding campaigns or Patreon accounts. Make a list, donate, and repost. In my experience live performance people are thrifty and shrewd when it comes to economic matters - a small donation can go a long way in helping someone make rent or complete a project. Go on! Be a patron of the arts!

  6. Make ‘em famous! Follow all their social media accounts. Repost their work, interact with their posts, and recommend their accounts to your followers.

  7. Donate to arts relief funds. There are local, provincial, national and international arts relief funds. Charity starts at home, and small donations from many caring hearts can make an enormous difference. Think of it as buying someone a drink or a coffee. It could be a life-changing coffee.

  8. Support your local performance venue! Buy tickets for future shows or buy merchandise. These are the heartbeats and lifelines of communities, and the artistic homes of many artists. Supporting independent venues will strengthen the whole industry.

  9. Buy a play! Online there are e-books, pdf’s, and hard copies. Score even bigger points by supporting local playwrights or buy the rights to perform one of your friends' plays for a night - read and perform it in your own house!

  10. Stream it! Play your friends’ album, podcast, or audiobook in the background while you work or, for the most minimal level of effort - play it on repeat (on mute) whilst you sleep! Remember to leave comments & likes. High viewership and interaction rates make artists more likely to get noticed.

  11. Commission work! Pay for a song, a script, or a performance!

  12. Build them up! Punt their work old and new online by reposting an old review, photo or poster, and promote the work that is currently in the making.

  13. Write reviews! Write a short supportive review in the comments section of their Youtube channel, FB Page, Website, or Linkedin. Review their online publications, books, and scripts. Write a testimonial or reference letter for them. Write about your experience seeing their latest (pre-pandemic) show and how it made you feel, or what it’s like working with them as a collaborator.

  14. Collaborate! Now is the time to reach out and cross-pollinate. Reach out and connect with visual artists, designers, animators, writers, musicians, and other performers. Create something exciting and experimental and new. Reach out and create with non-creative freelancers too. The world is our germ-filled oyster.

  15. Network baby! Connect your artist friends with other artists, makers, entrepreneurs, and non-creatives too. See the potential and the magic that could happen. We need a wider network of support now more than ever in our solipsistic socially distant lives.

  16. Recommend them for jobs! Speak up and recommend your homies for jobs in and outside of their wheelhouse. “She’s a great actress - but she can design too! I’ll send you her portfolio.” Find out and consider your friends’ lesser-known talents, and the training they have that doesn't align with live performance. These jobs can help keep them afloat.

  17. Volunteer! Offer to volunteer for one of their projects. Maybe they need help recording or editing, they need a writer for a script or designer for a graphic. Maybe they need a helping hand painting or moving something. If you’ve got the free time, jump in.

  18. Watch me! Watch me! Watch their quarantine live streams and concerts and send lots of support through the comments. The stakes are always high performing live, and it can be daunting singing or acting to yourself. If there is a way to pay or buy a ticket - buy for yourself or donate a ticket to someone else.

  19. Friends and Family! Encourage friends and family at home to get involved in the arts. Switch out a night of binge-watching Netflix for a night of National Theatre Live or a live stream of a local Jazz band. Dress up, have fun with it, and post your rave reviews afterward.

  20. Go to a Drive-In Concert! Depending on where you live and what the rules are about social distancing, consider hosting or attending a live performance drive-in. Bands and outdoor theatre performances have been embracing this model to keep it “live” and keep safe at the same time. Pack a boozy picnic and rock on.

  21. Living room concert! Consider hosting a living room performance for yourself or a friend. Everyone donates or buys a ticket and an intimate musical performance or two-hander play can unfold right in your own living room. (Keep it COVID-cool though obviously).

  22. Share resources, art, and fundraisers. Draw your friends, family, and colleagues’ attention to causes, fundraisers, and individual artists you may be supporting. Make it personal and not just spammy.

  23. Education! Whilst many artists will be hustling to work and generate income, many will also have lots of time on their hands to reinvest in their arts education, or want to invest in training in other fields via e-learning. Consider paying for a class, or to share your passwords for platforms you may already be signed up for. #socialismforthearts

  24. Get Political! Contact your local council, municipality, or government and support the arts at the local level. Make sure the officials in your area know the value the public sees in artists and arts curriculums in community projects centers and schools.

It's all a bit fucked for artists now. But it won’t be fucked forever. If you’re an artist, find ways that your creativity can contribute to your community, branch out, and take the time foisted upon us all to explore new modes of making and performing. If you’re a lover of the arts (or artists) speak to us, listen, and contribute what you can. Live performance will live on, and there are already many innovative and exciting models being presented for a way forward; drive-ins, outside performances, home performances, and hybridized digital work. Perhaps the truth is that theatre can keep on living, it just has to evolve.



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