T here’s a funny meme circulating on social media showing four pictures: the artist, and then the artist after social distancing; the artist during quarantine, and then the artist after quarantine. The joke? They’re all the same picture — a Jane Eyre-type figure painting away as if nothing has changed.
If only. The coronavirus-induced downturn in the economy has had a profound effect on artists across every discipline. With concert halls, theaters, and galleries shuttered since mid-March, artists are now staring at rents due and livelihoods disrupted with no clear path ahead.
“And many of those artists also work in restaurants and bars. They are very entrepreneurial, and they have lost all of their sources of income at once,” says Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
While members of the Philadelphia Orchestra may still be drawing paychecks, most artists are freelancers, and they don’t get paid if the show doesn’t go on. It may also be a long time before many are back at work. Even if retail and restaurants slowly get going again, it could be the fall — or later — before audiences are able to congregate in theaters and concert venues.
How these artists fare, individually, affects the cultural life of the city. “One of the things we often don’t recognize is how important the individual artist is to the theater community or the functioning of musical ensembles," Lyon notes. "The quality of the visual and performing arts in Philadelphia depends on that community of individual artists.”
We talked with talented professionals from different disciplines and at different stages of their careers to take the pulse of that community six weeks into this crisis. There’s a resilience here — when the world changes, it has always been the artist who shows the way forward. When and how they get to the other side is a wide-open question.
M indy Cutcher was getting ready for her gig playing in the orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet when, an hour before she was scheduled to leave her house, she got word: the March 12 performance of La Bayadère had been called off.
It was just the beginning, of course. The entire rest of the run of La Bayadère was canceled, as was a May production the ballet company had engaged her to play. Her jobs playing in skilled nursing facilities were scrapped, and inquiries about her playing weddings, funerals, and parties stopped.
“It was like someone pulling the rug out from under you,” says Cutcher.
Spring accounts for a big chunk of income for the region’s freelance musicians. Pennsylvania Ballet, Opera Philadelphia, regional orchestras, and other groups are typically busy in this last stretch of the season. Area choruses and churches mount Easter programs that bring substantial paychecks.
Making a living as a freelance musician is hard all of the time, says Cutcher, but the COVID-19 crisis coming when it did was especially painful. “This is wedding season and concert season for a lot of us,” says the harpist, who estimates that 60% of her income has dried up.
“On my worst day, I fear the music world won’t ever be the same, that some of my music colleagues will have to quit music altogether and some fragile arts organizations will cease to exist or concert series won’t continue,” she says.
Cutcher feels fortunate to have a somewhat diversified income stream. She has about 20 students — young harpists and retirees who have decided to take up the instrument later in life. She’s moved their lessons to Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom.
“I am trying to think what I can do since I can’t be live and in person to help them with technique and hand positions, so I’ve been doing things like YouTube videos to send to them and I’ve been arranging Disney tunes for some.”
In some ways, enforced downtime is a gift. There’s more time for her to practice, though motivation is sometimes hard when you don’t have a specific piece with the deadline of a performance for which you can aim.
“I’ve been reading through a lot of new music, things I’ve been meaning to play through. I’m working on a piece that I wouldn’t normally work on because it’s harder, these Paganini variations that hopefully I’ll be able to perform somewhere soon. We’ll see.”
As for making a living, she says she can get by for now. Her husband has a regular paycheck, “and not all musicians are that lucky. There are a lot of two-musician households.”
— Peter Dobrin
J anine Beckles is a dancer with Philadanco, a dance teacher at both locations of the company’s Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and one other school, and a legal assistant for a law firm. All three of those jobs ended at once as COVID-19 swept in.
Philadanco, where she is also tour manager, had been touring in Europe in March and had to fly home early when artistic director Joan Myers Brown told the dancers the tour was being cut short. After a six-hour bus trip across Germany, a long flight to Newark, and a 3 1/2-hour wait in customs, Beckles arrived back in Philadelphia — and went directly into self-quarantine for the mandated two weeks.
Artistically, she’s looking at her career with new appreciation. “Once we are cleared to perform again, I will never take dancing for granted,” she says. She looks forward to resuming celebrations for Philadanco’s 50th anniversary year — “I know bigger things are on the horizon.”
Financially, "I’m scared, to be extremely honest and blunt,” she says. Beckles is receiving unemployment payments based on her dance job at Philadanco, but not from work at the dance schools or the law firm.
“How long can I survive?" she wonders. “I have a great savings — thank God for that. And I budget very well. … I wonder about my coworkers who are living from paycheck to paycheck.”
The uncertainty of the future unnerves her. “Even when we come back, when are our next performances?”
For now, Beckles is taking daily dance classes online, organizing her apartment, and applying for MFA programs for when her dance career is eventually over — rather than just on hold. She speaks to her mother in Florida and twin sister in San Francisco multiple times a day, she journals, and she prays.
“I reached out to a therapist” — chosen from a list of resources provided by the company — “because, you know, I don’t want to be stressed. Dancing was my relief of my emotions, and I don’t have the studio to go to.”
— Ellen Dunkel
O nly last month, Lavett Ballard was dropping off her artwork for a gallery exhibition with some well-known peers — “a big deal” show, she says.
A Time magazine cover she had been chosen to illustrate had just come out, a special edition noting “100 Women of the Year,” and she had media interviews lined up.
The exhibition was canceled, a place “where I could have had made many connections and had major acquisitions of my work,” said Ballard, a University of the Arts graduate. Instead, it has moved online.
Her Time cover was published, a moment of visibility that would be “a game changer for any artist,” she says. “But because of the shutdowns, the week the magazine dropped no one could go out and find the magazine. Good Morning America and others had reached out ahead of time to do interviews. Then came the quarantine and they canceled all those stories.”
Artists know that these kinds of opportunities don’t come along often.
“Extremely bittersweet” is how Ballard describes the last few weeks. “I hit the mountaintop, but nobody is here to see it."
Still, she is producing work and sending images out on social media. “I am hopeful that with me keeping connections with galleries and collectors and museums, when we are able to be not as distant from each other they’ll be more interested in seeing the works in person.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed Ballard’s work, too, in ways that would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago. The building where she had her 500- or 600-square-foot studio has been closed, and so she is working at her Willingboro home, in a room the size of a large walk-in closet. And so she has gone from producing pieces that were around six feet high and seven feet wide to works that are more intimate.
“I have to be able to create artwork that has a large presence in a small space, like creating the perfect chocolate chip cookie,” she says. "I only have one bite for people to have before they go to the next thing. It’s more of a challenge for me to create artwork that draws people in immediately, that makes them not have to think about what’s going on in the news, what’s going on in the world.”
This period in time has not changed the subject matter she deals with — race, gender and history — but she has no intention of engaging with the coronavirus crisis itself in her work.
“I think there are enough artists doing that,” she says. “I just want to show people images that are joyful, that remind them of better times.”
T wo weeks into March, bass-baritone Zachary James was in Minneapolis rehearsing for the Minnesota Opera’s premiere of Edward Tulane. “We all showed up to have our final run-through, and we were told we’re being sent home right away,” James says. “There was no time to react.”
Later that day, he booked a rental car and returned to Philadelphia.
The opera had been in workshops for nearly four years. “It was pretty devastating,” he says. “We were 10 days away from opening night.”
James, 38, is no rookie. Before rising in the opera world, he sang on Broadway in The Addams Family, South Pacific, and Coram Boy. He’s played in dozens of shows off-Broadway and has appeared in NBC’s 30 Rock.
He knows show business can be rocky, but his career had been booming. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in December. Now his future depends on something that’s entirely out of his control: how well the fine arts community rebounds from the coronavirus.
“I never really had a plan B,” James said. “I’ve been going full-time since I [graduated from Ithaca College] and even before then.”
The Minnesota Opera paid the cast in full before sending them home, and he’s finding paying gigs where he can. He’s part of an experimental opera being performed over Zoom this weekend.
To keep busy, James has been doing podcast interviews, TV news appearances (from home), volunteer work, and creating videos for his 14,000 Instagram followers. “Whatever people reach out and ask me to do, I just say yes,” he says.
When the coronavirus closures lift, James said he’ll be happy his home won’t smell of bleach. He lives with his boyfriend who’s a health-care worker.
“We’re so vigilant about cleaning and keeping healthy, and it’s what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “I’m usually on the road like 10 months out of a year, so being home is a gift, but also an exhausting routine.”
W hen Akeem Davis was in the fifth grade, he wanted to be a CPA. By eighth grade, he was thinking actuary: “I love math, and I love money.”
It was acting, though, that eventually brought the Miami-raised Davis to Philadelphia, where in 2011 he met Taysha Marie Canales, an Arcadia University grad from the Bronx, while the two were performing in a short play tied to an exhibition at the National Constitution Center.
And it’s partly math — specifically his side gigs in tax preparation and work for a nonprofit — that’s helping Davis, a 33-year-old Florida State grad, and Canales, 31, make ends meet as they continue to plan their Sept. 5 wedding in the wake of the theater closings that threw them both abruptly out of work last month.
Canales, a member of the Wilma’s HotHouse Company of resident artists, was appearing in Shakespeare in Love at the People’s Light in Malvern, and Davis had just begun previews at the Arden for A Streetcar Named Desire when the curtains fell early on those productions.
Both actors are past winners of the F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging artist and successful enough to have known where their next gigs were coming from. Now, that’s just more work lost, with no way of knowing when, or if, those opportunities will return.
“I was contracted to work at the Arden on No Child right at the beginning of April,” Canales says, before the Arden called off the rest of its season. “We were both contracted to work at the Wilma on Is God Is, and that was scheduled to begin rehearsals at the end of April. But we just got official word from the Wilma that they’re suspending that project as well, which makes total sense.”
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, which represented about eight weeks of work for Davis this summer, has also been canceled.
"Now it’s this period of just waiting,” Canales says. They’re working to conserve money that’s still coming in, including getting forbearance — a delay — on their mortgage payments and Canales’ student loans.
They were able to get some relief from other creditors. “We’ve been pretty diligent in our money habits,” Davis says.
The couple bought their home in South Philadelphia in November. An eight-week residency they led last year at the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, tied to the Wilma’s production of Dance Nation, helped them save money for the down payment.
The theater closings came as “we’re still saving up for the wedding,” scheduled to take place at the Arden, Canales says.
Davis is philosophical. “We do plays, but I feel like life is the large story happening here,” he says.
Canales was able to reopen an unemployment claim from earlier in the year. Davis, who’s kept his 10-hour-a-week job with the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a nonprofit-death penalty resource center, applied for unemployment for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Both are members of Actors Equity, which is covering three months of premiums for members like Davis and Canales, who’ve worked enough to qualify for health insurance.
Canales continues to receive a stipend for her part-time work with the HotHouse company, which has been meeting for the past few Mondays on Google Hangouts, “trying to figure out the best way to create content with each other.”
Davis’ tax work would normally have ended in mid-April, but with filing deadlines extended, there’s still some work there for the actor, who likes showing his fellow artists the deductions they may be entitled to.
Overall, “we do well enough for two youngish artists with no dependents,” he says. “If this thing would have happened to us when we were just starting our careers,” it could have been much worse.
“Our hearts go out to the 24-year-old, just-graduated artist” who might not yet be in their position, he says, recalling one of the couple’s early projects together, 2012’s Slip/Shot at the Flashpoint Theatre, which paid him $100 a week, “and I thought life couldn’t get any better.”
— Ellen Gray
A fter graduating from the University of the Arts last year, pianist David Thomas auditioned for (and landed) his first professional gig — as the piano man at Center City’s Howl at the Moon.
For nine months, he started his shift at 6 p.m. and would play for an hour, then take a break, then play again, continuing until 2 a.m., “or until the bar closed,” he said.
Patrons at the bar snapped their fingers and sipped drinks as Thomas performed standards like Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” under a dim stagelight.
He enjoyed playing there because “it made me a more well-rounded musician.” In addition to the piano, Thomas played bass, guitar, drums, “and even the tambourine,” he joked.
But then came the coronavirus, and an Instagram post that announced the closure, for an indefinite period, of Howl at the Moon. “During this difficult time, we have decided to take action and close,” the bar’s post read. “We aim to be responsible … and make the proper decisions to protect all employees and patrons.”
Thomas said he knew his job was nonessential, but the suddenness rattled him. “I went from being a rock star four nights a week to playing my keyboard in my living room,” he said.
Now his future is uncertain — financially and creatively. Other prospects that Thomas had in the works, like serving as a musical director for a show in the University of the Arts’ Polyphone Music Festival, have dried up, “all at once.”
Thomas was able to secure unemployment payments and has family support. He earned enough money at Howl at the Moon to build savings, he says, “but it’s a little weird being unemployed.”
To keep his piano chops sharp, he’s refining his songwriting skills on his Yamaha electric piano. But performing at home, with no sense of when he’ll return to a stage, has “definitely been an adjustment.”