Last week, Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, hosted a phone conference in which she outlined the NEA’s plan to help non-profit arts organizations that have suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19. Upon concluding her overview of the Endowment’s strategy, Carter took questions from the attending leadership of various organizations. The Q&A session, remarkably, lasted for two hours. It needed to, given the stories related by the many organizations about the dire straits they now found themselves in since their doors closed to meet the stay-at-home orders in place, since mid-March.
Performances, classes, rehearsals, exhibits and more had all vanished with little warning, denying the arts organizations—many of which already existed on a slim budget—critical revenue that would ordinarily be used to keep the lights on and pay their administrative and artistic staff. As we all know, most artists live hand-to-mouth. That is, they are usually contracted employees working when and where they can with little or no financial safety net. In theatre companies—whether commercial or educational—it is the actors, designers, playwrights, directors and technicians who brings a stage play to life and provide the training for our future theatre artist that have been most profoundly affected by COVID-19.
There are some recently announced financial support initiatives for teaching artists, including theatre professionals, that are worth sharing:
- The federal stimulus package, the CARES Act, includes “gig” workers, such as actors and other theatre professionals, as eligible for unemployment benefits.
- The NEA has posted applications guidelines for the CARES Act relief funds that will provide support funds to arts organizations and their employees that are enduring economic hardships caused by forced closure of their operations due to the spread of COVID-19.
- The Artist Relief Refund, a consortium of national arts grantmakers, will distribute $5,000 grants to artists facing dire financial emergencies due to COVID-19; go to https://www.artistrelief.org/ for application guidelines.
- The philanthropic organization Creative Capitol has created a list of resources and grant opportunities for individual artists experiencing financial difficulties. You can access it at https://creative-capital.org/2020/03/13/list-of-arts-resources-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/
The Educational Theatre Association annually contracts a sizable number of teaching artists to present workshops at its premiere event, the International Thespian Festival. This year’s Festival, scheduled for late June, has been canceled and is currently being reimagined as a virtual event. Becca Wren, EdTA events assistant manager, estimates that the live event would have employed more than seventy contracted teaching artists; also impacted: the onsite backstage and administrative personnel at the Festival’s host site, Indiana University, Bloomington. Further, EdTA’s state Chapter affiliates were forced to cancel thirteen events, each of which would have featured a substantial number of teaching artists as well.
As I did in an earlier blog in which I queried theatre teachers to see how they we’re doing in the new education normal that has forced them to quickly recalibrate their teaching to an online environment, I wanted to know how some of the teaching artists who have worked for EdTA were handling their current situation and how they felt about online theatre performance and teaching. Here’s what some of them had to say:
Jonathan Dorf, playwright
It's a very challenging time to be someone whose income is largely freelance or dependent on royalties, rather than a fixed salary. I offered a free YouTube Live workshop recently that I would have been teaching at some of the cancelled conferences and I'm in discussions with several schools to be a virtual guest artist. Of course, I can still write, though the challenge for me in general is that even though I "work at home," I rarely actually worked at home—I'd usually go to cafes, which was like going into the office. I have yet to see a virtual theatre play. I think it's going to be a different experience. It's not going to replace communing in a theater space, but I think it will be its own kind of experience and be valid in its way.
Mike Catron, high school English teacher, martial arts-stage combat instructor
Fortunately, my primary work as high school English teacher has continued as my district is following a rigorous approach to e-learning, so I am engaged in teaching high school every day. I primarily teach writing classes rooted in workshops and discussion and my students are doing the best they can under the current circumstances, so I have reason to be grateful and patient.
Like most, I have several “irons in the fire,” as it’s hard to make it as a full-time teaching artist. In one of my side hustles, I also teach Taekwondo. That is going less well. I am producing videos for remote training and to retain contact with students when social distancing ends, but the ultimate impact on my martial arts business remains to be seen.
I’m just trying to be the best teacher, Taekwondo instructor, and stage combat choreographer I can be under the circumstances we have right now. I expect—once we are safe to gather in groups again—the hunger for in-person and analog entertainment will increase and all of us in performing arts will find opportunities to work, create, and share again. I'm not going to say that a shared zoom performance of stage play isn't artistically valid, but I would be wary to call "virtual" events "theatre.” In many ways, live theater is magic—I don't mean this metaphorically. Theatre is a combination of performance, slight-of-hand, misdirection, and—on the part of the audience—suspension of disbelief. Virtual theatre is better than no theatre. But it is a different kind of expression than live theatre.
Russ Sharek, circus artist, Circus Freaks
One hundred percent of our public events, classes, and workshops have been postponed or canceled. We’ve doing circus skills training from home through video chats to our fans and existing students. I have been encouraging my students to use this slower time to dig deeper into themselves. Life is a fire hydrant of clickable need, and it's almost a refreshing change of pace to have everything moving slower. I’ve been telling my students to use this time to dig deeper into themselves. I do feel like we need to stop pretending that video can replace human contact. It's a poor substitute for being genuinely present, and we need to lean into the statement that it is a necessary and temporary alternative to total isolation.
Michelle Evans, acting and college audition coach, College Auditions Project
Even before the stay-at-home orders, 75% of my professional work was online. In my acting studio I use Skype and FaceTime to coach actors all over the world. As a professional acting and college audition coach, the online platform has allowed me to reach more students and has made my services more accessible than when I taught in person. So now I find myself online even more. My colleagues and I at College Audition Project have launched a series of free online classes. I am teaching some monologue clinics and have a script club as well. These have been a great way to bring actors (mainly high school aged) together from all over to just connect. People that may have never found themselves in a group are now sharing their art—it’s really beautiful.
The downside to our new “normal” is that the other 25% of my business is traveling around the country and teaching, which obviously has come to a stop. Beyond the financial loss of these events and contracts being cancelled is the facts that I will miss out in those in-person moments, that embrace of community. I can’t wait until I can physically be in a room with my people again!
When I took my business completely online two years ago, I was met with a lot of skepticism. Could someone really grow and learn from taking acting lesson online? I have been shocked at the growth of my students and how the online connect has allowed us to focus and dive into our work together. Of course, there is nothing like being in a room together, the energy is just different.
As artist we are resilient, we are dreamers, where the world sees a cardboard tree, we see a forest. I think we are all tapping into things that have laid dormant inside and I am excited about the creativity that
Cassio Severino, juggling instructor
I am optimistic that theatre and school festivals will survive and maybe even find more passionate voices who need to be heard after this period of forced isolation. The joyful enthusiasm has always been there, but I think that zest of life and love of the arts and people will expand.
Communication is always the key to successful teaching. I am watching classroom teachers attempt to use Zoom and other online platforms with short notice and, while some are succeeding, I can imagine that many are frustrated and under pressure. It’s an interesting experiment.
As a semi-retired educator, I admire the efforts and compassion my fellow educators are revealing for their students and parents. I’ve been teaching a college Political Science class online for years and I’ve really missed the smiles and interactions with students in the classroom. When I had the opportunity to get back in the classroom after five years I jumped at the chance. So, this is hard—I always started my classes with handshakes with each student.
Aretta Bumgartner, puppetry instructor, the Center for Puppetry Arts
The Center was fortunate enough to already have an active digital learning department in place before the COVID-19 crisis (https://puppet.org/programs/ ), that uses Zoom to share live and interactive puppetry programming all over the world, so we were able to use this foundation as a jumping-off point when the theatre education world shifted to virtual.
One of our largest challenges has been the shift to home “studios.” We have two theatres, three museum galleries, and three classrooms onsite, along with all our teaching and performance materials— museum artifacts, puppets, sets, etc. So deciding what and how to shift some of this home when we have no “home studios,” something a company faces that home-based artists might not—and which staff members take and do what—was difficult to figure out when we got our shelter- in-place orders from the City of Atlanta on short notice. But we adapt, we plan, we communicate, we connect, we dream in regular staff meetings via Zoom, working to find a balance between free programming and paid content since we will need that to keep doors open and staff employed.
I know there is a lot of performances and classes being done online right now, but they do not, will not, take the place of in-person arts programming as the empathy needed to feel and respond to a human being in a shared real space cannot ever be replicated online. On the other hand, perhaps for a generation who are already used to a world of screens, maybe this is not as challenging a leap. For me personally, the biggest heartache is not being able to employ my amazing team of teaching artists, the folks who teach the Create-A-Puppet workshops daily at the Center, who lead outreach programming—with no workshops or bookings, there’s no work to offer.
Nicole Perry, dance and theatre artist
I’ve been choreographing and reviewing content for a children's musical via Zoom and teaching one dance class/week online. I have had to change my mindset about how to teach dance through this medium. Because I cannot really see students as well as I would in the room—basically, I’m working with twenty little boxes with twenty even smaller bodies inside them—I am not really "teaching." Instead, I am facilitating a rehearsal, a review. Still, for an hour or so a week, students are at least maintaining the information and movement they already had. They are practicing. And, more importantly, they are staying connected- to me, to each other, to the art of dance and theatre. I try to keep my sessions joyous and leave them with one focused thing to think about and work on before we meet back together.
I am very hopeful that my work will pick back up where it left off when we can get back to being together. While this is economically very challenging, I think it has brought our artists together to support each other, emphasized for students and parents the importance of the work we do, and made us even more creative.
D.W. Gregory, playwright
It's a little early for me to say what the impact is going to be long-term. In the short term, I've lost some opportunities. I was hoping to attend the ITF this June and teach some workshops there. I don't know if I have the capacity to adapt my workshop to an online offering—we’ll see.
I don't think theatre adapts well to the digital world. It's live performance, and teaching is an act of performance as much as anything. Obviously, right now, teachers need to adapt to the immediate reality. But it can't be a permanent reset; that defeats the whole purpose of the art form.
It’s worth bearing in mind that there have been major disruptions throughout history– pandemics, wars, natural disasters—that have set us all back for weeks and months and sometimes years. Oliver Cromwell shut down the theatres in England in 1649. They were dark for twelve years. Under the Restoration, theatre came roaring back, quite transformed.
There is of a lot of pain in this process now, as inevitably, certain individuals and arts organizations will not be able to continue as artists and arts institutions. Operating already on a thin margin, they cannot survive months and months without revenue. For me personally, I don't know what it all means, but if the small companies I've worked with do not survive, then I am not sure it makes much sense for me to continue writing plays. Time will tell. I do know I will write something. I just don't know what.
Crit Fisher, high school lighting and sound designer
We’re doing e-learning now. I have been utilizing Zoom for video interfacing with colleagues and updating our rep plot in the computer. My take on live versus virtual theatre: live theatre relies so much on the audience response. You lose that virtually. Also, from a teaching standpoint, unless both the student and educator have video interface capabilities, you don't really know what the other person is doing. Also, for those of us who uses computers every day for designing, programming, and production, having that live interaction is needed. There are some things that just can be done through a virtual platform. End of the day, I never realized how much I took for granted a high five, fist bump or hug from a student.
Orion Bradshaw, actor and teaching artist
Most of my work in 2020 was as a licensed substitute teacher for numerous Portland, Oregon-area schools and districts. I am not currently working, but I am receiving unemployment. I have a few adult students whom I privately coach, but because of income uncertainty and their preference to learn in-person, those sessions are on hold as well. I don’t think things are going to come back into focus regarding my work until school planning resumes in the summer.
I do believe that virtual theatre events can offer a valid artistic experience, especially for a generation of youth that is already so dependent on electronics and digital resources to stimulate them. That said, what sets theatrical experiences apart from cinematic ones is that they happen in real-time, in the heat of the moment, and they are, hopefully, striving to engage in person-to-person and/or group dialogue, hearts beating together in time, in one communal space. That has been the true magic of theatre since the dawn of man. More than ever, we need to maintain or even elevate that sense of the communal storytelling experience and real-time community dialogue that goes with it.
I miss hugs and gatherings at the bar with my family, friends, colleagues, peers before and/or after a show. And I miss my students and the scary magic of the classroom and the stage. But I’m also feeling very fortunate that I have so many people and things to love, miss, and reconnect with someday soon.
Photo: Aretta Bumgartner, puppetry teaching artist. Photo by Susan Doremus.