The Performing Arts is not an industry that anyone enters lightly. My dad used to describe being anactor as ‘a kind of insanity’; a world of rollercoaster highs and lows, where work and life are inextricably linked. It takes years, sometimes decades, of hard work, grit and resilience to build a reputation, and even then, work is rarely reliable.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Venues and theatres closed their doors. Filming on TV and film projects was postponed or cancelled. Even now, a significant proportion of the UK remains under strict control measures, with entertainment venues closed until further notice. And while performances are beginning to restart in those ‘lucky’ areas in lower tiers, the sad reality is that social distancing requirements mean many venues will struggle to break even.
For those who make their living from these stages, studios and sets, the pandemic has been life-changing. The magic of live performance is created by teamwork; a process built on people and connection. This is not an industry used to isolation.
“As performers, we’re really playful,” says comedian Donna Preston, of ITV’s Hey Tracey and BBC sketch show Famalam. “I’ve been isolating alone. I’ve had no one to play with. That’s been really difficult. I’ve felt numb a lot of the time.”
Actress and composer Kate Marlais agrees, summing up this year as “a time of job loss, sometime-loneliness, financial anxiety and world crisis.”
The all-consuming nature of being a performer means that for many, it is more than just a career. It is also a sense of identity. “To people in the music industry and friends outside of it, I am ‘Mark The Drummer,” explains Mark Pusey, who has toured and recorded with stars including Ed Sheeran and Tom Jones. “It’s what I do, it’s what people know me for. It’s my passion, my hobby and the way I pay bills. When you are defined by what you do, and then you all of a sudden don’t do it anymore, who the hell are you?”
He says that the music industry has been “decimated” by the past year. “Nobody is releasing albums because there are no live gigs to promote the records at. The whole music industry cycle of ‘write – record – release – tour’ doesn’t exist at the moment.”
Ben Chappell, principal cellist with London Musici and the Rambert Dance Company, found himself in a similar situation with all live performances cancelled during the nationwide lockdowns. Chappell’s partner, Bea Lovejoy, is a violinist with the St Paul’s Quartet. Together, they have navigated the year through a combination of COVID-secure session recordings, live-streamed concerts and home recording.
“We gave performances from our home and broadcast on Radio 4 with our new home studio venture which was ready to go in the first lockdown,” Chappell explains.
“We also had the stress of waiting to hear for three months whether we would receive SEISS (the government support scheme for the self-employed). We eventually received state support, whereas many of our colleagues have not.”
Stress and worry over government support – or lack of it – is a common theme amongst everyone I spoke to. Many are frustrated by the time it took to get help.
The performing arts is a largely freelance industry, offering no furlough and no redundancy pay. Many performers are already no strangers to working multiple jobs, something that gave chancellor Rishi Sunak’s throwaway comment about arts workers retraining in more ‘viable’ jobs a particularly nasty sting.
Grants and emergency funding have kept some afloat. The £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund, launched by the government in July, has provided grants and capital to cultural institutions hard hit by the pandemic, saving many venues from closure. For a number, however, it arrived far too late. The Theatre Arts Fund, set up by director Sam Mendes to provide one-off grants to theatre freelancers has also proved a lifeline. But the impact – social, financial, emotional and practical –has been immense.
Fear and anxiety
Helen Jeffery runs a peer support group for female performers on mental health and wellbeing platform . She believes that the crushing impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry has “in some ways, only exacerbated the reality of the struggles that performers face.”
Jeffery recently carried out a survey into the effects of the pandemic on female performers. The results are sobering, but not surprising. Ninety two per cent of respondents scored within the medium to high range for anxiety screening.
“It is clear from the survey that the mental wellbeing of female performers has been put under severe pressure during the pandemic, whether through loss of earnings (43 percent identify as being in financial hardship), paid work being cancelled (68 percent) or the pressure of having to look for alternative employment,” Jeffery says. “Sixty percent of the women surveyed said they are considering ending their career as a performer.”
One initiative aiming to counter the immense impact of the past year and provide some of the sense of the community stolen by the pandemic is Corona Days Plays. Launched by actress and composer Alex Young as a way to connect to others in the industry and pass the time during lockdown, the CDP collective does weekly play readings via Zoom. The group now has almost 200 members, ranging from recent graduates and backstage crew to Olivier-award winners.
Young chooses the scripts (the first was Shakespeare in Love) and casts them by pulling names out of a hat – rendering gender, experience and appearance irrelevant.
“My favourite thing about the group is that it encapsulates the best thing about the theatre business – the generosity, kindness, geekery and enthusiasm that allows the strange alchemy of putting on a showto happen,” she smiles.
Speaking to some of its members, the impact of the group is immediately apparent. Olivier-award winning actress Rebecca Trehearn credits the readings with reminding her of “the pleasure to be found in acting for the sheer love of it”, while actor and writer Michael Lindall says he jumped at the chance to join the group, “even for just one play”.
“What I was really craving, which I hadn’t realised,” he explains, “was the best part of what the theatre offers; community. A safe space to fall, to play, to experiment, to share, to be vulnerable. To connect.”
Young’s initiative is one of thousands of innovative new approaches taken by performers across the country, with many turning to social media or using streaming services to share their work and find new ways to reach audiences.
Others have used their time during lockdown to create new work. Despite struggling with hitting her creative stride against such a difficult backdrop, Preston has used her time to write a sitcom which has been picked up by BBC Studios, and is set to launch a new podcast.
She is optimistic that there will be a return to some form of normality, but concedes that it will take some time. “Things will continue. They have to. Otherwise what are we going to watch?”
It’s a pertinent question. If this year has shown us anything, it is that we urgently need the escapism, laughter, emotional connection and entertainment that the arts can offer us. The unique shared experience of a live performance is something that I hope we have learned to never take for granted.
Director Sam Mendes put it beautifully in earlier this year announcing the launch of the Theatre Arts Fund. He said that funding was so desperately needed, “not because the arts keep us alive (thank you to the NHS for that) but because they give us something worth staying alive for.”