There is no denying that the Coronavirus Pandemic has really shaken up the performing arts world. Broadway shuttered. Local theaters in danger of closing for good. Concerts online-only, if that. Sure, actors, singers, and musicians immediately come to mind when we think of careers that have been curtailed suddenly and dramatically (excuse the pun) by the pandemic. But it’s really a domino effect: so many professions and businesses suffer if the arts suffer: the writers, composers, directors, costumers, lighting people, stage crew, house staff, wig makers, dance shoe companies, recording studios, sound crews, rehearsal studios…not to mention the restaurants, lounges, venue concessions, etc. It’s mind-boggling. Even as certain large venues may be starting up again at 10% capacity, and ancient Broadway theaters try to retrofit their buildings with new air handlers, can a theater remain profitable without filling the house?
Then, of course, there are the instructors: voice teachers, dance instructors, acting coaches, and the list goes on. In a perfect world, performing artists should continue to refine their skills and hone their craft, to be ready for auditions and performances again when everyone is vaccinated and the restrictions are lifted. But the world is far from perfect: money is tight for so many with gigs canceled, and ongoing studies aren’t always feasible.
Speaking of money being tight, and the world as we know it is upended, especially the performance world, what does this mean for the future of performing? And how should performers prepare for the next disaster, if there is one? How do we make sure that we can still make a living? What have we learned?
One thing many people have learned is that you’d better embrace technology, and fast. My clients are taking individual Zoom lessons in all the performing arts. They even participate in Zoom group classes: dance, audition preparation, scene study, musical theater class…you name it, it’s available. We music teachers (and voice therapists ?) figured out real fast how to deliver all of our services effectively online. As long as the student has their accompaniment on their side of the call (or you make a track and send it to them), virtual lessons are amazingly effective. We even help our students optimize their audio settings, lighting, and equipment to get the best results. I know my students take all of these classes and lessons as an investment in the future of their careers. But really, it’s an investment in the future of the arts…for their very survival.
Other clients are now creating home recording studios, using Garage Band and other apps, or pro-quality recording equipment, to record covers or originals, audition material, voice-overs, etc. Yes, some singers are going into the recording studio to record, but at this point, my feeling is that this isn’t safe. Singing (and playing wind-driven instruments) generates a large number of potentially dangerous virus-carrying aerosols. And the average recording studio isn’t able to run air cleaning systems, as air handlers and air purifiers may be too noisy, there are no windows to open, and it may not be profitable to let one singer in, then air out the studio for at least an hour or more and disinfect before the next artist comes in. Despite the existence of some excellent singers’ masks, most singers don’t want to record wearing one. So home-based technology is your only safe alternative. With the wonders of modern technology, talented editors have taken solo recordings made at home and created compilation videos to form virtual singing groups and choirs, with amazing results. So artists are working now, but surely not enough to pay the rent consistently.
I’ve also attended some brilliant online theatrical performances and musicals. Solo artists who could afford it used professional performance spaces and recording crews, but even local theater groups, individual singers, and singing groups have been able to do this safely. I watched an amazing murder-mystery/comedy/musical recently starring some smashing Broadway talent, where the camera work was so good, it took me half the play to realize that the actors were never in the same room as each other. They were all filmed separately (except for two actors who were a couple), and then pieced together to create the semblance that they were all in the same room actually interacting. I bet there are some graphic editor geeks out there who could do this with their local actor friends and create a virtual masterpiece safely.
So even assuming the performing arts come back the way they used to be, how does the performer, the singing or acting teacher, or any related profession, prepare for the next rainy day (or in the present case, the Great Flood)? There’s always the side hustle, which can become very lucrative in some cases. We know the performer has often looked to the food-service industry as a source of income. Thank goodness those jobs are still pretty much considered essential, so many of my clients still have some form of gainful employment. Temporary office work is also a possibility in some cases. And of course, those singers who have more established “day jobs”/careers in essential industries (education, banking, law, real estate, finance) are doing well.
But perhaps we need to think outside the box here. The teacher can write instructional courses for online consumption, and as we have shown from Day 1, she can teach online. When possible, instructors have also created outdoor classes, or even indoor classes in large venues with ventilation (an absolute essential for safety), social distancing, and masks. Church soloists have created recordings under safe circumstances to be played during services, both live and virtual. Why not try your hand at writing a book or even an eBook in your field of expertise? If you’re young and still living with your family, work on songwriting, poetry writing, or just practicing more. The last time I looked, those are still free. And if you copyright your work and get it out there on social media, who knows what opportunities may await you?
Of course, if the performer is shrewd, it is also time to save and invest wisely, figure out how to live more frugally, and plan ahead so as never to get caught unprepared again. Easier said than done, I know, but reach for expert help with this. It has been a tough time for so many finance-wise, but with guidance, we can each formulate a plan to get through the next tight spot. I’m amazed at how much I DIDN’T really need to buy: I have enough skincare, lipstick (not needed much with masks anyway), and shoes to last me a very long time. Ironically, I ended up donating many more clothes in 2020 than in the past; I decluttered and felt really good that I could help others.
Naturally, self-care would be a great idea, if you haven’t considered it before now. This is a good time to meditate, practice mindfulness, hike in the great outdoors or uses simple home exercise equipment like resistance bands or work-out videos, improve your diet, hydration, and sleep habits, and reassess goals, passions, and where you want to be in one year, five years, ten years.
So, what will happen at the end of 2021 and in 2022? My belief is that the performing arts will return. Perhaps little by little, with small-capacity, socially-distanced audiences at first. Will the arts be exactly the same as they were in 2019? Perhaps not. Perhaps there will be a slow start. Perhaps lack of funding will reduce the variety of choices we’ll have for shows and concerts, both seeing them, and being in them. But as people feel more comfortable going to performance venues, and as vaccinations become more widely available, I feel sure we can return to our pre-pandemic level of artistic excellence. This will take hard work, discipline, a whole lot of safety precautions, and patience. In the meantime, keep studying, stay healthy, hydrate, breathe steam, observe CDC guidelines, think outside the box as to how you might reinvent yourself, and PRACTICE! The arts will be back….sooner than you think!
©2021 Karen Sussman, MA, CCC-SLP
Professional Voice Care Center