The Economic Tragedy of COVID’s Effect on Live Theatre

Many of us who work in live theatre are just beginning to fully process the effect that COVID has had on our industry. While some of us have already moved out of town, taken steps to learn a new skill in preparation for a possible career change, or have taken on temporary work, for many folks working in Broadway and other arts sectors, such a pivot isn’t possible without taking the time to experience a grieving process.

Unfortunately, our leaders have failed us in their handling of the pandemic, both with regard to public health and safety as well as economics. We often hear politicians express reluctance to continue expanded unemployment benefits because they serve as a disincentive to return to work. While that may be the case for some, it is most certainly not the case for any of the many hardworking members of the Broadway (or any) arts community.

Those of us in the arts and entertainment industry have toiled our entire lives to learn highly specialized skills which aren’t easily transferable to other industries. We’ve taken great risk in pursuing careers in a highly competitive industry which brings in enormous amounts of revenue to the local and national economies, and for most of us, our personal identities are closely intertwined with our livelihoods. We do what we do because we can’t imagine doing anything else, and out of a deep sense of purpose and passion for impacting the lives of others through our craft. Those with this sense of dedication can’t just pivot to an entirely new career path without taking the time to process the change and grieve, not to mention learning a new skillset to enable such a change.

The Economic Inequality of COVID

Those who work in careers which easily lend themselves to remote work have experienced relatively minor disruptions by comparison. As inconvenient as it may be to set up an office space in one’s home while juggling career with child care, it’s even more inconvenient to come to realization that a worldwide pandemic means that one’s means of earning a living will be completely shut down for at least 6-8 months, if not longer. Coupled with the high cost of living in a major city such as New York, this situation becomes impossible.

Had our leaders taken steps to address the pandemic, it would be easier to stomach the idea of not working for several months. After all, Phantom of the Opera performances resumed relatively quickly in Seoul, Korea, and various Disney productions have resumed in Japan. Instead, here in the United States we’ve only seen partisan bickering, politicization of the pandemic response, and nothing in the way of a national policy to combat the virus. While we in the entertainment community (and many other professions as well) made a huge sacrifice in the name of the greater good, our leaders and many of our fellow citizens have taken this sacrifice for granted and refuse to acknowledge neither our sacrifice nor what we need to get through this crisis.

Let’s take a look at two contrasting examples. First, consider someone who works in software engineering or web development. These are fields which can be performed remotely, and many folks working in these areas continue working and living with minimal impact on their careers. They can continue to save, and can perhaps even save more than before due to limited options for travel and entertainment, the elimination of commuting expenses, eating more meals at home, and fewer (if any) dry cleaning bills.

In the other scenario, consider a Broadway musician with a steady show. For the sake of making the numbers easy to work with, let’s assume that this particular musician earns approximately $100,000 per year from their show. Living in NYC, rent could be anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000 per month depending upon whether they have a roommate or live alone in addition to which neighborhood and building they live in. To suddenly find themselves living on unemployment, that would bring their new annual income to under $40,000, which is essentially amounts to a 60% tax on their former salary. In addition to that, this musician still has no idea if their show will even be able to reopen once the pandemic is over, they won’t be able to afford to continue living in NYC on unemployment alone unless they dip into their personal savings, with the addition of the stress and anxiety caused by such economic uncertainty.

If our leaders had taken steps to attack COVID head on, and if our fellow citizens were taking this pandemic seriously, many of us might be more inclined to be more generous and forgiving, but the actions of our those in charge and many parts of the general public only serve to lengthen the time it will take for society to return to normal, which means those in the entertainment community are out of work even that much longer. To ask us to take a 60% pay cut (or more) for over a year, dip significantly into our personal savings to survive, risk losing health insurance, and possibly have to give up careers we’ve built over the course of decades, yet at the same time complain about the impact of the additional $600 weekly payments on our nation’s debt is absolutely ludicrous and insulting. Those of us in Broadway can’t just go out and find another job without significant training over time, and to do so under the current economic circumstances and be able to find a job which pays enough to continue living in NYC or other major city before depleting our savings is a difficult ask at best.

As artists, we’ve already made great sacrifices during this pandemic. We deserve at a bare minimum to receive the extended unemployment benefits at least for a long enough period of time to allow us to retrain in another field and pivot our professional lives to adjust for the foreseeable future.

How Will We Pay For All of This?

I hear folks asking how the government can afford to continue to pay for these benefits, which is a question I just don’t understand. If the federal government can afford corporate tax cuts in 2017 which brought about several trillion fewer dollars in tax revenue, then surely we can afford to pay unemployment benefits long enough to prevent massive evictions, foreclosures, and bankruptcies.

Either way, the government will wind up paying. The only question is whether the government will aid the people now or whether they’ll bail out banks and corporations down the road once people begin defaulting on mortgages, credit cards, and stop paying rent. Since banks and corporations made it clear that any monetary windfall they receive will be spent on stock buybacks and bonuses for their executives, I think it’s quite clear that the most effective strategy is to offer aid to the people now. As for how to pay for this? I offer a proposal.

If we use my earlier example of a Broadway musician now living on unemployment, that same musician is essentially being taxed at a flat tax rate of 60% this year while those whose work remains unaffected are continuing to pay the standard tax rate appropriate to their earnings. A simple solution would be that once we come out of this pandemic, those of us who lost our livelihoods due to COVID would be exempt from paying federal income tax for a specified period of time, perhaps anywhere from 1-3 years. During that period of time, anyone who worked interrupted at their career throughout the pandemic would see a tax increase of an appropriate amount to make up for the budget shortfall. This would in no way fully compensate all of the folks who lost their careers and a significant portion of their life savings through no fault of their own (and through the inaction of our elected leaders), but it would help toward spreading the responsibility around in a more equitable manner.

The rhetoric coming from some folks in D.C. that we should just go out and get a job is both laughable and insulting. Many of us continue to teach private students via Zoom, do odd jobs, and whatever else we can, but the reality is that most of the available jobs simply can’t come close to paying for the cost of living in a major city, especially if that city is New York City. Society should be thanking us for making the sacrifice we’re making on their behalf.

Where to Go From Here

Brian Li published an insightful and somewhat controversial blog post The Future of Broadway for Musicians, Actors, and Crew Members, and I happen to agree with what he said. Our field will likely be even more competitive once theatre returns, and we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of wage cuts, reductions in cast and orchestra sizes, or anything else. We live in unprecedented times and we need to consider options we never would have considered previously.

I recently completed the General Assembly Front End Web Development course. I’ve always loved computers and coding, so I’m not taking any chances. Even if Broadway bounces back quicker than expected, I intend to continue learning coding so that I can use it for my work doing electronic music design by writing custom scripts for MainStage and Logic or web apps and backend functionality on my website. And should we find ourselves returning to a much bleaker scenario than we ever imagined, I plan to continue learning coding so that I can parlay that into an alternative career.

While it’s not feasible for everyone to learn to code, this is an opportunity for us to acquire new skills which can only increase our earning potential while also providing a hedge against slow times once the business comes back to life. In this day and age, it’s become more critical than ever to have multiple revenue streams and to diversify as much as possible.

The truth of the matter is that we have no idea when Broadway will be back, and once it’s back, how closely it will resemble the Broadway we already know. Unfortunately, the time it takes to get through this pandemic is completely beyond our control, given the politicization of nearly every aspect of it from vaccines to mask wearing and everything else. We also have no idea how much competition will exist or whether wages will be similar to what they are now.

What we can control is how we use this time while we wait for the industry to return. Of course we can continue to hone our craft, work on projects remotely, etc, but this time can be incredibly fruitful if we use this as an opportunity to learn a new skill, start a new business, or simply restructure our approach to the industry.

The hand we’ve been dealt as members of the entertainment industry is terrible, and the lack of empathy for our situation is despicable. As much as we can try to educate the public and our elected leaders, I’m skeptical of how much of an effect it will have on policies that affect us in any sort of meaningful way. But let’s use this time to regroup, improve and upgrade our skills, and find a new lease on life. Clearly our industry has undergone massive changes in the last decade, and will most likely evolve in profound ways as a result of the pandemic and the new technology available. We have a golden opportunity to stay ahead of the technological and evolutionary curve if we use this downtime to focus on adapting to the situation and doing our best to anticipate what the future holds for us as artists, and to reevaluate how we’ll use our talents and skills for both our livelihoods and to make this world a better place for all humanity.

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