On March 11, Joshua Penman ‘01 texted his friend Aea, offering her money to cancel her album release concert scheduled for that night in Oakland, California. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he worried she would endanger both herself and her audience by choosing to perform.
She didn’t respond.
But Penman, who studied music and mathematics at Yale and played full-time in a band after college, didn’t give up there. He had realized that he could help mitigate the spread of the virus by paying performers for canceled shows.
That day, Penman started a GoFundMe page. “It was almost like a reflex—I just wanted to put something up and try to get people money to cancel their shows,” he reflected in an interview with The Politic. A passionate composer, music producer, and software engineer, Penman recognized the precarious situation of many of his musician friends who were unable to afford the blow from a lost gig or performance.
“We’re asking artists to take the financial hit for the good of the community,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, nobody can go to your shows because social distancing measures are better for everybody, but you’re going to lose that money.’”
Within only a few days, the dialogue surrounding COVID-19 had changed. Penman understood the crisis: “We’ve crossed from ‘We might cancel our shows’ to ‘I just lost all of my work for the next two months,’ and people are hurting unbelievably.”
While COVID-19 has devastated the lives of many, artists and performers have been among the hardest hit. The pandemic has shocked an already-broken system of artist compensation, and artists have been left to pick up the pieces themselves. Congress has debated several responses to the pandemic, but few have addressed the needs of freelance workers. For freelance artists, paid time off does not exist, and employment protections—if any exist—vary drastically by state.
As hundreds of venues, from high-end theaters, orchestras, and ballets to smaller joints like clubs and weddings have postponed performances indefinitely, artists across the country have suffered. On March 12, Broadway suspended all performances until at least mid-April. A week later, the New York Metropolitan Opera—the largest performing arts organization in the United States—laid off all of its union employees, including its musicians and chorus.
“None of us have ever been wealthy,” Mika Godbole, a New Jersey percussionist who teaches music at Rider University and Rowan University, explained to The Politic. “Every artist I know has been in that position of ‘How am I going to pay rent this month?’ Whether you’re employed or not, whether you have gigs or not, we’ve all experienced that moment of extreme vulnerability.”
When Fiona Wench graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a B.A. in acting in 2018, she moved to Manhattan with the hopes of becoming a theater or film actress. Although she has found some work in the industry since then, she has held a slew of part-time jobs—starting off as a nanny, then working in catering—to make ends meet.
For the last six months, she has been working as a temp at a financial firm while attending auditions and acting classes when she can. In early March, her office closed for the foreseeable future. “I think I’m going to end up going back home to Maryland just to have some food in the fridge,” Wench said in an interview with The Politic.
The pandemic will hit many artists’ livelihoods twice over: their performances are postponed indefinitely and their second jobs are the next to be sacrificed. On April 2, the Department of Labor announced that 10 million people had filed for unemployment in the past two weeks.
“One of the things that is hardest for actors is that for a lot of us, our survival jobs are hourly,” Wench continued. “So when offices shut or people aren’t hiring nannies because of social distancing, the source of income that we rely on when we’re not in shows diminishes greatly.”
For Wench’s roommate, an actor and restaurant worker, these concerns are just as salient. “Every employee at that restaurant relies heavily on tips. You hope that if someone is sick, they won’t come to work. But because everyone’s income relies on showing up, it’s a tricky situation,” explained Wench.
For auditions, Wench and many of her friends are increasingly turning to self-tapes, which allow actors to send filmed material to casting directors. Wench expects that number will rise as the pandemic continues. Websites like SaveMyAudition.com, which usually charge actors for accompaniment that they can use in self-tapes, are offering free tracks to artists who can no longer attend live auditions due to the pandemic.
Still, while the industry is working to accommodate its auditioning actors, most productions have shut down or been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, making jobs that are hard to secure under normal circumstances even more difficult to find.
For Wench and her roommate, neither of whom are unionized, there is little guidance during this time. But even for actors covered by unions, things are complicated. Unions designed to support performers, like the Actors’ Equity Association, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, are often unable to help.
Abigail Vega, an arts worker from San Antonio, Texas shared that her colleagues were scared and confused, often with reason. “People were asking, ‘What’s my union doing for me?’” she recalled in an interview with The Politic. “If you are a union member and you have not heard from your union yet, that’s a problem.”
The art community can feel small. Godbole, the percussionist from New Jersey, was already thinking about how to help artists affected by the pandemic when she happened to come across Penman’s GoFundMe. In early March, Godbole had been talking to friends over Facebook, trying to find solutions, and when the Metropolitan Opera announced that they were shutting their doors for the rest of the month on March 12, she realized she had to act fast. She scoured the internet for GoFundMe inspiration, which is where she found Penman.
That same day, Godbole opened her own fundraiser page targeted at helping performers in the tri-state area.
Even before Godbole had thought about starting a fundraiser, she had begun to lose gigs herself. As an adjunct professor, she considers herself lucky: most of her work has been moved online, and she knows that no matter what, she will still be paid. In late March, Godbole lost her job at the bookstore where she normally works during the day. “I’ve been furloughed, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’m going to find a way to make it work somehow and keep fundraising,” she maintained.
Soon after launching her own GoFundMe, Godbole joined with another relief fund run by Los Angeles-based organization Equal Sound, a non-profit that helps artists put together and fund their productions. Together, they are working to fundraise for artists impacted by COVID-19 all across the country.
“We are flying by the seat of our pants because we wanted to get this out as quickly as possible,” said Godbole. “We’re just figuring it out day-by-day.” Soon, the joint fundraiser began to distribute funds on a rolling basis to any artist who could demonstrate income loss, either from official paperwork, emails from contractors, or just screenshots of texts from employers. They allocated funds in proportion to demonstrated financial loss, with a cap of $500 per canceled gig.
Since Penman and Godbole started their relief funds in mid-March, dozens of similar fundraisers have been created on GoFundMe to support artists in different cities. One Seattle-based relief fund raised nearly $200,000 in only ten days. Facebook groups, too, have sprung up for artists in different fields to share opportunities and comfort amidst the chaos. In one group titled “NYC Covid-19 Musician Resources and Support,” posts range from a musician asking for advice on how to tune her mother’s old piano to another wondering how to file for unemployment.
Godbole offered one reason why support systems like these are so important: many freelancers do not have contracts for every gig. Performances are sometimes scheduled by email or word of mouth. Thus, venues can cancel on a moment’s notice with no legal obligation to pay the performers, leaving artists financially stranded.
Godbole has seen drastic changes in her own life, too. With her regular university classes moved online, and without her gigs and regular time at the bookstore, she spends increasing hours stuck at home—and has focused much of her energy on the fundraiser.
By April 3, Godbole and Equal Sound had received 4,478 requests for funding and had made their first two rounds of payments to artists.
The same day Penman texted Aea, actor, director, and educator Nicole Brewer asked the artEquity alumni Facebook group to collaborate on a comprehensive collection of resources for artists. ArtEquity, an anti-racist facilitation training program, was a natural fit for this initiative: the part-activist, part-artist members were excited to get to work. Brewer envisioned a webinar for artists to share resources, hear from community members and experts, and lean on each other.
Many artEquity alumni, including Vega, Anne Marie Lonsdale, and Hannah Fenlon, responded to Brewer’s call. Quickly, Fenlon started populating a Google document with resources she had seen online. In the time it took her to enable the other alumni as administrators, the document had so much traffic that they could not properly access it. “I’ve never seen a Google Doc look like that,” said Vega.
Soon, Fenlon transferred this information to a free WordPress site, “COVID-19 Freelance Artist Resources.” The site, like the Google document, is a collaborative effort: anyone can submit resources through a Google Form. Within 48 hours, the page had over 200,000 unique views, a number that has since skyrocketed.
Within days of the site’s founding, suggestions streamed in under basic categories like Emergency Funding, Quantifying Economic Impact of Canceled Work, Best Practices for Online Teaching, and Advocacy Alerts. There are also sections providing for the long-term wellbeing of artists such as physical health, mental health, and interrupting racism and bias. The website links to other resource collections and upcoming virtual events.
On March 16, Brewer, Fenlon, Lonsdale, and Vega hosted a two hour-long webinar entitled “Artists In a Time of Global Pandemic,” which featured guidance and comfort from lawyers, arts educators, financial advisors, and other community members. The webinar counted 4,456 unique views from all 50 states and 119 countries. “There’s need all over the world, and what’s really amazing is that we’re actually reaching people,” Lonsdale said to The Politic.
While these resources are essential for struggling artists, they do not remove the ever-present economic turmoil. “The theater industrial complex and the entertainment complex have ground to a halt,” Brewer said. “Last week on Monday I got my first cancellation, Tuesday I got [another] cancellation, and I was beginning to panic.”
Brewer was also scheduled to teach a workshop at the Yale School of Drama in late March. “We’re currently in conversation about how to make that a digital convening instead of just flat-out canceling it,” she said. Still, there are elements of working in person that cannot be carried over to the digital world.
“When we go to events, our work speaks for itself, but also networking is so critical to us getting future work. That’s been shut down, and that kind of loss can’t be quantified at this moment.”
Five years ago, Penman decided to give up touring with his band to get a higher-paying job. The gigs had been coming slowly, and music didn’t seem financially feasible in the long term.
But every three years, the software company where he now works gives its employees a sabbatical. His just so happened to begin in late March. He initially intended to use his composition training and his six weeks off to make an original album, but now, he plans to hire underemployed musicians to record themselves playing the different parts, and then overlay the tracks.
“I happen to be in a position to hire musicians right now, and there is certainly no shortage of them looking for work,” he said. “It’s great to fundraise money, but nothing can replace getting to make music with each other.”
Lonsdale is heartened by performing artists’ collective reaction to the crisis, but she knows that this collaboration is nothing new. “What we’re seeing is something that is both the natural impulse of this community and something that this community has to do for itself all the time,” she said. “Artists live economically marginalized existences anyway, so we have systems for mutual aid already set up.”
Many artists are already used to rallying around one another for help, whether someone loses a gig or has a toothache but no dental insurance, she explained. “The pass-the-hat fundraiser at the bar, this is stuff that we all do all the time.”
While these support networks have expanded from bars to fundraisers that span the continent, the communal culture that has spread across the United States in the wake of COVID-19 is for many actors just a part of their regular job.
“Artists are predisposed by their humanity to be in community with other people,” Lonsdale said. “The very act of creating theater is an act of community building.” Though these times are unprecedented, the sense of community is not.