Sam Brooks surveys the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the performing arts community.
As COVID-19 took hold across the world over the past few weeks, the ripple effects began to be felt across New Zealand's performing arts sector. In late February, one of the flagship shows of the Auckland Arts Festival, Place Des Anges, due to be performed in the Auckland Domain, had to cancel due to shipping and freight becoming cost prohibitive as a result of the virus outbreak. As March began, a few international concerts cancelled here and there, but bigger events like Womad and Book of Mormon went ahead. After all, New Zealand was only experiencing a few isolated coronavirus and no community transmission.
Then, over the weekend of March 14 and 15, as the world buckled under the onslaught of the virus, things got serious here at home too. In Wellington, the NZ Festival of Arts cancelled several events on its very last day, and it was revealed that a French man with COVID-19 had flown into the city to see his son's NZ Festival dance show. Meanwhile the Auckland Arts Festival cancelled four international shows due to artists not being able to arrive before the self-isolation deadline.
On Monday March 16, the government announced a ban on mass gatherings of over 500 people until further notice, which caused the likes of the Auckland Writers Festival, CubaDupa and Book of Mormon to cancel. Creative New Zealand announced that its Arts Council will announce a plan on March 31 – in two weeks – to support the arts sector through this crisis.
Smaller boutique venues have varying approaches. On the night of March 17 the Dunedin Fringe announced it would be cancelled. BATS Theatre in Wellington is going ahead with its programmed NZ Fringe shows, while some artists at the Basement Theatre in Auckland have opted to call off their performances. As of March 18, current mainstage show Essays in Love and some other events are still running.
So what does the COVID-19 crisis mean for the performing artists on the ground? The Spinoff talked to a range of creatives across the country to find out how the coronavirus has affected them so far, their fears for the future and what they would like to see done to support their sector.
The impact thus far
Alice Canton's show Year of the Tiger which opened at Basement Theatre on March 10, felt the full brunt of COVID-19. The show has since been cancelled at Canton's request, but even before she pulled the plug things were dire. "I've lost thousands off this season," she said. "I've never sold a show this poorly – presales have been eye-wateringly low, and I'm not just putting that down to a competitive market or Auckland Fringe fatigue. I sold zero tickets last Friday – which has never happened in the 14 years I've been making and producing shows."
That's reflected across the sector. Many performing artists, be they actors, comedians or technicians, are freelance workers and rely on gigs for the bulk of their income. When there is uncertainty around events going ahead, even if they're not outright cancelled, both companies and freelancers lose out.
Silo Theatre, one of Auckland's two mainstage theatre companies, is considering cancelling its overseas tour of Peter and the Wolf to Hong Kong and Macau. This will not just mean a loss of income for the artists involved, but the loss of a massive overseas opportunity for the entire company. Freelancers are hurting just as much. Khalid Parkar, co-partner in events company Burning Black Productions, says his his calendar for the next six months has been wiped. Comedian Michele A'Court puts the financial impact bluntly: "In the last two days, I have had over $7000 worth of work cancelled.
"The bulk of my income is from MCing corporate events – conferences and dinners – and all of that appears to be disappearing as people worry about community transmission becoming a problem in New Zealand, and also because some events involved speakers and delegates from overseas who will no longer travel.
"All of which makes perfect sense, but it is a massive and very sudden change."
It's not just cancellations people are worried about. Even for full-time artists, it's the safety nets falling away that will be the real killer – the one-off gigs, the part-time jobs and the contracts. Silo Theatre, for example, employs over 100 contractors annually. That's 100 jobs that are under threat if more shows are cancelled this year.
"It's the classic domino effect of the gig economy for artists, with a reliance on events and public gatherings to generate income", says Canton. "That's not novel for freelancers, but the fear is compounded by the fact many of us don't have income protection insurance, so the future feels deadly uncertain."
Sam Snedden, currently producing the Alain de Botton adaptation Essays in Love at the Basement Theatre, agrees. "There are going to be so many gigging artists who are going to suffer hugely. Not only is the work going to totally dry up, there aren't going to be any hospo jobs either, which is crucial to people's income between gigs. Most artists are one step from the poorhouse as it is."
There's a reason for the stereotype of the struggling artist making ends meet as a waitress or bartender: hospo jobs are the backbone of the creative sector. The flexibility of hospitality and the relative stability of that industry make it a reliable safety net for those people whose bank balance depends on how much time they have between gigs. But even that safety net is at risk of falling out from under them.
"Where do we turn?" asks Parkar. "The most common answer for freelance practitioners is towards the hospitality industry or to the construction labour force, both of which are suffering a loss of customers and contracts, combined with a large flood of people asking for work. There won't be enough to go around, and the work available will go to skilled and experienced people from these industries before us."
There are also the far-reaching effects to consider. What about companies that rely on touring for their income, or companies with project-based Creative NZ funding? Claire Mabey, who runs Wellington events company Pirate & Queen, wants to know how the Creative NZ funding set-up will change. "Will arts organisations still get grants if outcomes are uncertain? How will that system adapt to this new environment?
"Many of us also make incredibly efficient use of commercial sponsorship so I'm concerned that those opportunities will shrink up even more than they already have as we brace for a potential recession."
A'Court is also thinking long-term. "For me, personally, as a self-employed worker with no sick leave or holiday pay? I am very anxious. I have been a freelance performer for more than 20 years and usually I am over-employed, running from one event to the next. My diary is largely empty now for the rest of the year. I have never seen my calendar look like this.
"But losses incurred by festival producers also worry me. There may be arts festivals who cancel this yet and might not survive into the future. We could lose some events from our calendar forever."
What can the government do?
As of March 18, the government announcements with the biggest impact on the sector are about mass gatherings. A limit of 500 people in a venue immediately cancels a lot of events – including the average Writer’s Festival event or pretty much any opera. For example, Book of Mormon, which had sold out many shows in its two-month season at the 2000-capacity Civic Theatre, has been forced to cancel its entire run.
Theatres like Auckland Theatre Company and the Pop-up Globe are employing social distancing as a way to adapt to the new rules. ATC, which leases the 650-seat ASB Waterfront Theatre, has not cancelled any of its upcoming shows, but has capped their venue at 500 seats to get under the government assembly limit. Similarly, the Pop-Up Globe has limited its groundlings tickets – essentially standing GA – to 100 to allow attendees to stand a metre apart. Allocated seated tickets are capped at 400 per performance. Even these restriction may become obsolete if some of the more severe public-gathering limits seen overseas arrive in New Zealand.
These companies reflect the two ends of the performing arts spectrum. Auckland Theatre Company, as a Creative NZ-funded company, will be waiting to hear from Creative New Zealand on March 31, when the arts-rescue plan is announced. The Pop-up Globe, which had planned to leave New Zealand this October in order to tour Australia, is a purely commercial venture and will likely have to simply wait it out.
But the biggest worry for artists is how they will afford to live in the upcoming months. The good news for many in the sector is that contractors and self-employed people are eligible for the $5.1 billion wage-subsidy package announced yesterday – that includes artists affected by event cancellations due to COVID-19.
Snedden would like to see "benefits indexed to the living wage, for everyone who is affected. Period. Poor people, beneficiaries, contractors, casual staff, people with no holiday pay owing, these are all going to be the hardest hit and the government has to act."
Then there's also the difficulty of actually applying to receive those benefits. Providing proof of loss of income, for example, is difficult when you live from one-off gig to one-off gig. As Canton says, "access to cover basic living costs would be a major relief. But if it's anything like applying for the jobseekers benefit then I anticipate it'll be a nightmare."
Waiting for word
For many artists, the most difficult thing is the anxiety associated with this period. Announcements are coming quickly, and nobody is getting more work with any of them. This time last week, many artists had a full diary. Now, there are months upon months of crossed-out gigs. But is the onus on the artist to cancel their own gigs or events, or on the venues and organisations to do so?
A'Court finds that the most grueling thing is making the call herself. "It is easier when a producer or client cancels, rather than leaving it to me to weigh the risk and make the choice. I'm grateful for having a government that's making clear calls as it all evolves."
Meanwhile, Canton feels she has a responsibility to both her audience and her community, which led to her request to cancel Year of the Tiger. "The lack of leadership from the arts sector has been frustrating – other sectors are being more front-foot. We have a walk-up culture at the Basement Theatre – people buy tickets on the door and we don't always get contact details. It's also in a GA theatre, so if anyone is exposed, I can't guarantee my audiences [will know] where they sat and with whom. So it's pretty negligent if we don't communicate all of this to our audience because they should give their consent to that risk."
Snedden puts it simply. "Artists aren't stupid. We care about our community and as soon as we are told to cancel we will.
"In the meantime, if you have a salary or savings, if you have a disposal income: Buy a ticket to a show. I don’'t care if you go or not, but throw people a bone."
Updated: Since publication, the 2020 NZ International Comedy Festival has also been cancelled.