Performing arts in a Covid world

Ellis Rosen takes a closer look at how the pandemic has impacted the entertainment industry.

I have interviewed two people, performing artists known to me, who have been greatly affected by the Covid Pandemic and its impact on performances and their livelihoods...

Craig Hepworth – Award Winning writer and Director 

The last time we had a show on stage was November 2019 and that was a premiere stage adaptation of the movie EXAM. We had such a great response that we booked a national tour for 2020 and could not have been more excited. Then the pandemic hit and we had to cancel it all. It was devastating, I felt like we had worked so hard and it all came crashing down. 

We knew fairly early on that 2020 would be a non-starter. Common sense and following the science closely made that very clear. We had to look for a way to stay creative, but safely. Thinking outside of the box. 2021 has been really more of the same, at first we thought great, restrictions are easing and the vaccine has mostly been a success, but as we have seen new variants emerge it’s made us rethink again. Is it worth putting so much in to a show that isn’t actually guaranteed to go ahead?  

We have decided to head back to live productions at the start of 2022 with EXAM and one other new show, at least then we should know exactly where we are with the pandemic.

We were very lucky as we didn’t need government support. We don’t have staff as its all run by myself and my partner Karl and we were OK for money during the lockdown. Far more people needed that money more than we did so we had no intention of applying. I think the government should have done much more for actors however. So many I know got no help at all. The false dates, false starts etc. really hurt our industry. They clearly had zero idea of what it takes to get a show up and running.

We are not one to sit around and mope, so we decided to film our next project NOIR for release, but had to figure out how to do it safely. We checked that filming without an audience would be allowed and then we bubbled, isolated the cast, tested them and locked ourselves away for a week in a giant freezing cold warehouse to film. We temperature checked cast and ourselves daily, sprayed the toilets, doors, sets, dressing areas down every few hours. It was like a military operation that took a lot of planning

It was crazy, but so much fun. The cast were so lovely that we had a blast. We filmed up to 16 hours a day. The crazy part however is that because we wanted to be as safe as possible, we had no crew. We therefore shot everything on mobile phones, designed and built sets, did wardrobe, lighting, editing, all by ourselves. Things we had never done before, so it became very challenging, learning on the job. but seeing the finished article, I’m really proud of what we achieved.

I’m hoping from 2022 that we see a return to normality but with some much-needed changes. Major shows in London and touring have not been able to return because playing to half capacity in these socially distanced times is not financially viable. 

It would be nice to see some of the West End theatres let smaller shows with smaller running costs come in for a season. I know right now a few are doing that to plug gaps before major shows return, but it would be great if that was something they maintained. 

** The Filmed production of NOIR, by Vertigo Theatre Productions, is now available to rent or buy via the below link. Take a step back to 1950’s New York in this excellent production. 

Francesca Ter Berg – Acclaimed cellist, known for her specialism in Eastern European traditional music (Klezmer and Roma)

The initial shock of the pandemic came in the form of all the work I had lined up for the rest of the year being cancelled. Everything I had been working towards for the past five years came to an immediate halt. This included workshops, touring nationally and internationally and recording work. A couple of these engagements were agreed to be rescheduled for 2021 but nothing else has re-materialised, and considering the instability of the cultural sector and unknown social restriction variations these rescheduled events may not go ahead this year either. 

The effect of losing the ability to practice my profession live was disorientating and quite sad, and then we were expected to adapt quite quickly to online performances. This was tricky as it not only meant grasping a new performance medium but also having to learn new software and invest in new equipment quickly in order to deliver a performance that looks and sounds good.

I let go of all my plans and am now taking things very much as they come, as well as not being too attached to bookings, especially if they are in real life.

I decided to focus on release material. I released a remix EP with my critically acclaimed duo Fran & Flora, a single with a new Ladino collaborative project with the singer-songwriter Ana Silvera last May and this April I released my debut EP, an experimental work combining cello, traditional Sinti and Yiddish folk song, improvisation and live electronics. 

I have just been awarded a Project Grant by the Arts Council England to record two more EP’s and run some workshops for women in creative music making in my local area of Margate.

I didn’t receive any government funding in 2020 as I didn’t qualify for the SEISS. I was one of the 25% of freelancers that ‘fell through the cracks’. The reason for this lies in the government not understanding how self-employed people earn their living and the multitude of jobs they often take on at the same time. This is a little complicated, but basically the scheme didn’t take into account those on zero hours contracts for jobs like part-time teaching work which many freelance musicians do to pay bills.

In the first lockdown I took over a small studio in Margate to make music in, and thus was able to qualify for some (but not all) of the local business grants. This is what has seen me through so far. It’s an unfair system, which I benefited from in part but not all. 

I’d like to think, if anything, that people have learned to support one another more deeply in the past 15 months, especially in the music community which is very strong.

It looks like things are opening up and people are excited to get out and about to attend shows. Ticket prices seem to have increased though to compensate for fewer audience members because of social distancing. I don’t expect to tour extensively until Spring 2022 as venues, agents and promotors have suffered greatly from the pandemic and it will take a while for them to get back on their feet and for things to resume as they were. 

I think some workshops, conferences and performances will continue to be online and there will always be online-streaming element moving forwards, for accessibility and to continue the trend which has started. It’s kind of exciting how much things have opened up – but nothing beats live performance!

** Francesca can be hired for private shows and heard on Margate radio. Please find all details via her website link above. 

Francesca’s recent EP ‘In Eynem‘  

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Ellis Rosen

Ellis Rosen has worked in the UK travel industry for 27 years, focusing mostly on the travel of fans and teams to the UK. He is not a professional writer, but has an in depth knowledge of all sports worldwide, as well as the travel industry. He has visited every continent and watched cricket in Australia and football in Argentina. He is 52, lives in east London and is also a qualified Chartered Accountant.

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