Live performance has been one of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, as large gatherings aren’t permitted and venues have had to close their doors.
Whether that’s the actor, musician, dancer or stage crew, all those in the industry are feeling the impact one year into the pandemic.
“Live performance has been completely devastated by the pandemic,” said Gary Preston, who plays the harmonica and keyboard. “The gig economy means you only work when you pick up a job and the jobs can be incredibly one-off, that’s how it is.”
Preston supports a third of his income with live gigs — the rest is made up mostly of private teaching and a few other things. Since March 2020, Preston says he’s probably played about six to 10 paying gigs with reduced pay.
“All of the people who rely more than 33 per cent upon live performance income — and I know many people who do — are completely devastated financially and emotionally by this pandemic,” Preston said. “For me, it’s been very, very tough. I’ve had to simply find ways not to spend money.”
Pablo Cardenas plays piano, and like Preston, uses teaching as another revenue stream besides performing live. Being a pianist during the pandemic has been especially hard and he says it’s been tough to stay motivated.
“You go from performing a few times a month, almost every week, to hoping to have one show in a month,” Cardenas said.
But stepping away from music is out of the question for him.
“For a performer, it’s like a part of you,” he said. “Leaving performing is never a possibility, you always find a way, you always find a place. It’s something that you cannot detach from.”
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Cardenas has been performing on livestreams hosted by Hermann’s Jazz Club. The venue is closed to live audiences due to COVID-19 restrictions but people are still able to enjoy the music online.
“The club has been surviving the past year on literally donations to our livestream,” said Ashley Wey, the club’s artistic director and booking manager.
Donations and government grants to support small businesses have kept the club afloat, she said. The artists that perform on the livestreams get paid entirely based on the livestream donations.
“We are asking for donations for the artists because it’s to recoup for the lost ticket sales essentially,” Wey explained.
In pre-pandemic times, ticket sales at the door would go towards paying the artist.
“So if you’re watching it from home, and you got that bottle of wine that you bought at the liquor store and you made your own dinner,” she said, “And you normally would have spent $100 at clubs and $25 dollars for your ticket, people do consider and I do ask them to consider donating that much to support the artist and the venue.”
Pedro M. Siqueira is a musician, choreographer and actor. Just like Cardenas and Preston, he’s also a freelancer in a gig economy.
“That uncertainty, that’s what makes you uncomfortable,” he said. “You know, am I going to be able to pay rent? Am I going to be able to buy my food, get groceries? That’s what makes people give up their dreams and do something else.”
He graduated into the industry during the pandemic and although he’s hanging on, jumping from project to project, some of his classmates have had to turn away from the stage.
“I have friends that are starting accounting school right now and they’re incredible artists, they’re incredible stage managers,” Siqueira said.
Although it may be hard at times, Siqueira says he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“To keep sane. How can I do something else? That’s what I’m here to do,” he explained. “I could do something different but it’s definitely not what my heart beats for.”
For now, venues are empty and the stage is quiet.
“This industry of performance arts seems to be, in some ways, we were the first to close and we will be the last to reopen,” Wey noted.
When live performance does return, Wey says the industry will need time to recover — to build itself back up, to welcome back audiences, and to get back those artists it may have temporarily lost.