Editors note: It’s been 10 months since live entertainment went dark at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and it may be another 10 months before live venues can safely reopen. Participating in a virtual conference held Saturday by the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that by the “early to mid-fall, you can have people feeling safe performing onstage as well as people in the audience.” For performers and other entertainment workers sidelined by the pandemic, that relief may not come soon enough as they deplete savings and go from one odd job to another. Given the urgency of the situation and in light of the new White House administration coming in next week, veteran event producer Don Mischer, who has produced/directed Oscars, Primetime Emmys, Olympics opening ceremonies, Super Bowl halftime shows and the Obama inauguration, is speaking up for people in the arts. Taking a page from the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which covered arts and entertainment workers, he urges state and federal officials to launch a program similar to the Works Progress Administration so today’s arts and entertainment workers and their families can survive until live performances come back.
For every dancer who takes center stage, for every musician who prepares for a concert, and for every actor who steps in front of a camera, there are scores of talented, hardworking people behind the scenes making it work.
These creative support teams are the engines of our arts and entertainment. Assistant directors, designers, choreographers, costume makers, stage managers, cable pullers, extras, makeup artists, production assistants, working on shows from rock venues to Broadway theaters, and from movie sets to philharmonic halls and television studios.
When we look back on the tumult and devastation of 2020, the arts and entertainment community has suffered severe blows. So where does this leave the thousands of workers in the arts, who pretty much live paycheck to paycheck? Many are out of work, scrimping by, and frightened if there will even be a job to go to when this is over. We know them as hardworking people who take tremendous pride in what they do, whether it’s arranging music scores or building a piece of scenery, making every event, every show the better for it.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, before the pandemic there were over 5 million creative workers in various national and local arts industries, making it all possible….an arts and culture sector that brings over $800 billion a year to the U.S. economy, that’s 4.5% of the GDP, not to mention hours of pleasure, joy, insight, excitement and emotion for
every one of us.
Of course, arts that rely on live audiences have been particularly hard hit. Empty concert halls, movie theaters, and Broadway stages can testify to that. Some of these venues and the workers who create and deliver the content for them, may not survive.
Hollywood on the other hand, thanks to rigorous Covid-19 protocols, is beginning to get back to work. But many of the behind-the-camera workers are not! For one thing, some producers, in an effort to reduce costs or crew size, are using fewer characters in the script, shooting fewer episodes in a season, writing more CGI characters into the story, building less scenery (more augmented reality), hiring fewer extras, smaller staffs and using fewer cameras.
And the “virtual” solution to major live television events is certainly not helping either. Before the pandemic, spectacular television specials hired hundreds of staff and crew. But not so now. Example: Major award shows (like the Oscars or Emmys) would hire dozens of stage managers. But today, produced virtually, only two or three stage managers will have a job on these specials. Same with stagehands, camera operators, make-up artists, musicians, and many more. Many of these people haven’t had a paycheck since last March.
So what can we do? How can we help them?
In 1935 we were suffering through a terrible depression. Jobs were nowhere to be found. Bread lines were longer than employment lines. President Roosevelt’s New Deal came up with an ingenious idea to help kickstart things. The Works Progress Administration oversaw programs that built highways, schools, hospitals, bridges. And Roosevelt, knowing how critical arts and entertainment were to the spirit and morale of the nation, also included arts-related programs. WPA hired thousands of artists, writers, musicians, designers, painters, photographers and craftsmen who gave free concerts, painted murals inside public buildings, restored theaters, staged plays, taught kids and bore witness, with their photographs, to the plight of Americans. They made sure the arts stayed alive in the everyday life of communities, through exhibitions and classes.
Now, in 2021, we face similar circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed and millions of people have lost their jobs. Restaurants, travel, and retail are some of the hardest-hit sectors. But so is entertainment and the arts. A state/federal program similar to the WPA could provide a temporary lifeline. We’re talking about a few months of help, not a long-term commitment, That’s all that’s needed.
Workers in the arts are also very good at their jobs; they have to be good to survive in the highly competitive freelance marketplace. They know how to get things done. They know how to organize projects, share responsibilities, work under pressure, and make things happen on schedule and on budget. So let’s put them to work for a few months and help them pay their rent and feed their families.
In virtual sessions, scenic designers and costume makers could share their work experiences and craft with college students; music arrangers and lighting directors could explore how light and music can enhance the emotional impact of a scene or song; and choreographers and assistant directors could review staging and shooting movement in front of the lens.
As our new President-elect Joe Biden looks over the landscape of America, our battered economy, our battered morale, looking for infrastructure projects to help unemployed Americans, we ask him not to forget this essential group of jobless workers in arts and entertainment. They have so much to contribute to a hurting America, but now find themselves sitting idle, their hopes fading for the future. Our future.
As Sam Cooke said in his classic civil rights anthem, “….a change is gonna come.” But let’s try to included everyone in it when it does.
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