Pandemic and performance

Theatre artists see major losses in wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 and social distancing have seen the cancellation of concerts, fundraisers, socials and theatre productions on a mass scale. This has left many independent theatre artists out of work, and the specifics of the Emergency Support Benefit, which will be available to independent contractors, are yet to be determined.

Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed, a theatre artist and actor, was hard at work on A Thousand Splendid Suns, a mainstage Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC) co-production centring the voices of Middle Eastern people.

“I felt really represented (by the show),” she says. “We were onstage that day (they told us it was cancelled) in costume, and we had just got called back from a break early, and it was actually quite devastating.

“For me, being in a career with little financial stability to begin with, having a contract taken away is quite scary, because it means the (paycheque) I thought I would be seeing, which would help me pay for the rest of the year until I would hopefully have another show to work on, all of that is gone” she says.

Playwright Sharon Bajer also saw the swift cancellation of her world premiere of The Gingerbread Girl at Prairie Theatre Exchange. “The floor was all taped out. The set was half built. The costumes were bought, and props were starting to come in,” Bajer says.

The play will be cancelled, rather than postponed until next season (a step being taken with some productions, including Narrow Bridge by Daniel Thau-Eleff at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre), because PTE’s next season is already scheduled and cannot be rearranged.  “If I can raise enough money to produce it on my own, if we are out of this crisis in a year, then I’m going to try and self-produce it,” Bajer says.

Theatre designer jaymez has lost several contracts, including the remounting of Ghost Light at Neptune Theatre in Halifax. “As I landed (in Halifax), I got a phone call saying they had cancelled the show,”  jaymez says. Another world premiere of a Winnipeg play, Five Moments, a new endeavour by Rick Chafe and Theatre Projects Manitoba (TPM), has been postponed.

“That was my summer money,” jaymez says.” As a designer, I generally work from September until May-ish, and then I ... take the odd gig here and there between May and September. Losing that last show is a real kick in the pants.

TPM “is trying to figure out the logistics of what they can afford and what they have to pay. I also don’t want to burden companies that are not making money, pushing them into bankruptcy because of my contract.”

Smith-Mohamed and jaymez stress that TPM and RMTC are doing what they can to see their artists get paid, but they are also seeing the strain of lost revenue. jaymez is a member of the Associated Designers of Canada, which will support him.

On March 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced funding for independent workers who are sick or isolating during the pandemic, but not for those who have lost work because of social distancing and cancellation of contracts. This leaves a big gap for theatre companies and professional associations to fill.

jaymez says “There are often times where artists and independent contractors, small business owners lose work, and there is nothing for them when there isn’t a pandemic going on. I think this helps to outline a fundamental problem in our society that needs to be addressed and not just addressed in a time of pandemic.”

“The worry and disappointment have gone beyond myself, and I’m having more anxiety about some theatre companies that may not survive it,” Bajer says.

Published in Volume 74, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 26, 2020)

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