For Craig Johnson, a performer based in Cornwall, southwest England, the spring and summer time is normally when his diary is full up with show bookings, but due to the coronavirus lockdown, he has found that show-after-show has been cancelled and the dates in his diary empty.
“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and very quickly — because I had bookings all over the spring, summer, autumn and winter — I was getting emails and phone calls saying, ‘So sorry, we’ve had to cancel this event’,” Johnson told Xinhua.
“I was just left thinking, ‘Okay, how am I going to get through this?’,” Johnson said.
One of the major shows for Johnson, which was set to take place at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall for the Easter holiday, was cancelled moments before the show was set to start.
“We were in rehearsals and we were all ready to go. The news started coming in that some things were going to change. We were thinking of ways that we could adapt. But very quickly, it was a day or two, it was, ‘No, the show is off’,” Johnson said.
“The show had youth actors in it as well, these kids that had been rehearsing for weeks, and suddenly it was, ‘Sorry, you’re not starring in this show in this theater anymore, you’ve got to go home’,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s story is all too familiar with the experience of performers and creatives during the coronavirus pandemic, as the lockdown has devastated the industry.
The British government’s furlough scheme, although generally considered a success for other industries, has not been able to cover everybody working within the performance industry.
Philippa Childs, head of BECTU (the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union), has been incredibly vocal about the need for an adequate funding scheme from the government that can help give everybody in the industry continue to have an income.
“Anybody who worked in a theater that we could get furloughed, we did. They are being supported by the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention scheme, but there’s a lot of people who weren’t furloughed — probably because they were freelancers working in the theater,” Childs told Xinhua.
“Some of them will have been able to get some money through the self-employed income support scheme, but thousands of people haven’t been able to get any support through that route either,” said Childs.
As a self-employed performer, Craig Johnson did not qualify for the furlough scheme and initially had to rely on savings and money from past shows as an income.
However, when the government released the support scheme aimed at helping those self-employed, Johnson was able to apply for that.
In the past few weeks, outdoor theater performances have been allowed to take place by the government. This has allowed Johnson to restart his one-man performance to a live audience.
But during the lockdown, many performers like Johnson and other theater houses were seeking new ways to continue to perform without a physical audience.
“I started recording these short videos, and over April, May and June I put out 25 videos, I tried to do two a week, little clips of my shows of me filming from home, obviously that wasn’t bringing in any income, but it allowed me to be creative, and it kept me busy,” said Johnson.
A few venues that Johnson was set to perform at had to cancel, but in return asked him to produce videos of his performances for online — but these were all for free.
“Online is hard to make a living. I’ve always done live theater, and going online is a very different thing,” said Johnson.
Not only was there little financial incentive to take his shows online, but for Johnson, it just didn’t feel like theater.
“There’s something about a live performance that gives you energy and gives you enthusiasm. When you film something with a camera, you watch it back and you can see that it’s just not there,” said Johnson.
As the performance industry seeks creative ways to keep entertaining and its many performers in work, the uncertainty of the coronavirus is concerning many who support the arts.
For Johnson, he’s not just worried about his own career as a performer but for the wider industry. “I’m really concerned about our future. Nobody knows what’s going to happen so it’s not as if we can plan.”
The biggest blow for performers was the decision for Christmas pantomimes to be cancelled, they are often a huge source of income for acts and theaters alike.
As the uncertainty over the future of both the pandemic and the industry continues, Johnson is aware that his own career as a performer is far from secure.
“It is scary, I’ve done this for 20 odd years, now I’m thinking right is this the time I start to train to become a plumber or something, which I don’t really want to do,” Johnson added. Enditem