When will the lights turn on?

May 24, 2020

The lockdown is hitting the performing arts industry hard

Last week, a number of stage artistes held protest demonstrations against the closure of theatres and demanded their reopening.

This comes after the government eased most of the restrictions imposed on other economic sectors. The lockdown has been very tough for the performing artistes, such as musicians and stage actors.

Even before the government’s decision, many businesses had been operating under the radar. Even the education sector has been functioning through online classes. This only leaves the artistes who have failed to put together their acts online.

It appears from the various steps which the governments are taking in other countries that the entertainment sector will be the last to be reopened.

On the surface, this appears unfair as more and more sectors are being considered for reopening. There is immense pressure for the resumption of the education sector, especially for children. However, no one is talking about the performing arts with the same firmness of tone as they are for education.

People have even been demanding the reopening of Montessori and nursery level schools where it will be difficult to enforce the guidelines and standard operating procedures for stopping coronavirus. The precautions appear cosmetic and meant only to fulfill paper requirements. It appears that the performing arts and the hospitality industry are the last priority of the authorities.

Their resumption will come at the very end if it comes at all. The protesting artistes who had rotis hung round their necks said it was the most important season for them. Eid is usually the occasion when most new films and stage dramas are released. It is a time when people come out in droves to attend performing arts events. The mood is festive and there is an air of revelry about everything. Most of the theatres fill up as people are willing in the spirit of the occasion to spend their cash on entertainment.

So, for show businesses, this is the most critical time of the year. What artistes earn during this period can last some of them the entire year. The producers then reinvest the extra cash into new plays and this keeps the ball rolling for the artistes.

With no such cash this year, it will be difficult to return to full capacity even when things start returning to normalcy.

In the past, the governments had taken steps to help the artistes in their hour of need. There are welfare schemes for old artistes, who are no longer in a position to earn all the money thy need. The welfare schemes launched in the past left a lot to be desired in their execution. The announcements have always exceeded the final benefits.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that these artistes have been practitioners of a form that is or was too avante garde and was without a ready audience.

The people do not come in large numbers to be part of something that is only for the initiated. Most art innovations were initially met with dismissal only to be proved wrong later.

Leaving that aside, this is a totally new situation. No one was prepared for it. The federal and provincial governments have been making offers to the various sections of the population affected by the lockdown.

Similar gestures of support are required for artistes to reassure them that there is someone listening to their grievances. In fact, the artistes deserve special attention and ought to be treated differently from other workers.

There have been concerns in the past about the dignity of the artistes being challenged when they were required to fill forms asking for help. It was suggested then that they should not be seen begging for help. This help should be offered in a more dignified manner.

In this case too, they have been left to fend for themselves. Even the most successful of them have been forced to sit at home and twiddle their thumbs. They are at their wits’ end do not know what to do.

The digital option can and should be looked into. However, it requires another set of skills and a familiarity with the medium that takes time to develop. For the time being, the artistes are on the roads and appealing to the government to save them from starvation.

In our country, artistes are among the most vulnerable segments of the community. Most of them operate without any insurance. They sparkle, light up, shine and seem to dominate when they are up on the stage, but dim out in real life.

Their economic well-being rests on their popularity, which is there one moment and gone the next. It is one of the most insecure of professions.

Temperamentally, too, the artistes are different from other types of workers as they are known to burn the candle at both ends. If it weren’t so, they would not be artistes.

Coronavirus lockdown hits performing arts industry hard