LIGHTS, CURTAIN, ACTION: WHAT THE ARTS INDUSTRY LOOKS LIKE POST-COVID-19

Inga Tracey

Account Director

Brisbane is well on its way to raising the curtain and turning the stage lights back on with Brisbane Festival confirming it will return in September and Lights On, the official re-opening of the Brisbane Powerhouse (the first major Brisbane venue to open its doors), beginning 24 July.

Audiences and artists alike are nervously waiting to see if it will be an easy transition back to “normal” or if this idea of “normal” has changed forever in the arts post-COVID-19.

It is already clear there will be a strong focus on celebrating local talent, highlighting our cities and taking pride in where we live and our local, homegrown talent. But what are the long-term implications of COVID-19? Can the arts industry afford to operate at limited capacity and for how long?

With the indefinite closure of international borders, some major Australian producers are predicting international artists won’t tour Australia before June 2021, while others remain more optimistic.

Live Nation Australasia CEO Roger Field talked to Sydney Morning Herald about the positive discussion around rehearsal hubs and recording hubs while artists quarantine.

“We have international artists who have not been able to work for long periods and who are keen to go back to touring. I think part of what we can do is persuade international artists that they don’t actually need to bring every single person with them as part of how we get them into the country and that there are those incredibly skilled workers who can do those jobs in Australia,” Field said.

It is not just about artists being able to travel, there is the issue of social distancing too. While some smaller, local shows are possible, larger arts events like music festivals, touring musicals and major stadium events will suffer while social distancing remains in place.

Major musicals that were set to tour, such as Hamilton and Moulin Rouge, have both stated they will need the tick of approval from government and health authorities for people to gather in full houses as capacity is essential for the shows to go ahead.

The Guardian reported in June: “Even with financial help from state governments, a federal year-long stimulus program is unlikely to be enough to save arts companies from hitting the wall.”

“A major issue facing the sector lies in the state government-mandated regulations on social distancing. No production is viable when it can sell only a fraction of its house, and with the spike in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne … those regulations are likely to be in force long-term. The worst-case scenario for performing arts venues is that distancing will continue until there is a vaccine – and that may be more than a year away.”

It would be remiss to focus solely on the promotors and not look at audiences too. Financial circumstances are going to play a major role in arts recovery after COVID-19, not just when looking at the cost to mount a performance but also a ticket-buyer’s ability to participate.

With the majority of Australians effected in some way financially by the pandemic, there may be a reluctance to spend on perceived luxuries such as theatre and events. September will see the end of the Federal Government’s JobKeeper scheme and there are predictions hundreds of “zombie companies” and a “zombie workforce” will collapse when the financial assistance stops.

While audiences seem comfortable with the concept of attending live performances soon – a survey of ArtsHub readers found 45 per cent said they would be willing to attend – it will be finances that prevent the industry from rebounding rather than health concerns.

With many organisations committed to paying their artists, showcasing programming already in place for 2020 and beyond and wanting to keep their audiences engaged, they are increasingly turning to digital and virtual performance platforms.

Artistic Director and CEO of Opera Queensland Patrick Nolan recently told InQueensland: “As an opera company, we’ve had to completely rethink the way we do business.”

“Unable to bring our work to physical audiences in theatres, it’s crucial to imagine how we continue to share our work in other ways and continue to support our artists financially; it’s art that is keeping the world sane at this time.”

As restrictions ease and “Zoom fatigue” sets in, it will be interesting to see how this move to digital will continue to evolve. Could the option of an online theatre subscription be the way of the future indefinitely? Will audiences get the same sense of connection that happens when they are in the same room as the performer? Will we start to view the arts differently, more like the on-demand style of video streaming services? With Disney+ releasing Hamilton before it has even left the US to tour, will people be satisfied with this rather than an in-theatre experience?

“The situation for the arts before COVID-19 was hardly stable or ideal. This pandemic has given arts leaders a huge opportunity to reflect and initiate sector-wide change. It has forced us to re-evaluate, reset and recreate an industry, not just so it can survive, but so it can thrive,” La Boite Theatre Company’s Executive Director Zohar Spatz told The Guardian.

While there is still a lot of uncertainty around what the arts will look like over coming months and years, we are seeing encouraging signs that the community is ready to back local and celebrate live performance once again.

This week, Brisbane Powerhouse will be the first major arts venue in Queensland to welcome back patrons for a range of performances, most of which have sold out, Artistic Director Kris Stewart told ABC.

“Touring is going to be super tough next year, so there’s a really great opportunity for us to celebrate Queensland.”

“We think it’s a great opportunity to get those international companies into a classic Brisbane venue.”

Spatz said La Boite had allocated tens of thousands of dollars in funding for artists to create new performances.

“What we’re hoping is over the course of the next three or four months, artists are going to start building the seeds of new shows,” she said.

Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Louise Bezzina said in an InQueensland article she had refused to entertain what she described as “poor me syndrome”, despite her first year in the chair being a rockier-than-expected ride.

“You’ve just got to look at all the positives, so the ‘why me?’ attitude, no, that’s just boring and you can’t do that. You’ve got to just lead and be practical, responsive and completely considerate to what’s happening around you and try to enable as much to happen as possible.

“We have an amazing city, I mean I can look outside my window and this city is really beautiful, we’re so blessed. We’ve got to back our city – back Brisbane – and back its arts and culture.”

There is no crystal ball to predict what the world, let alone the arts will look like post-COVID-19. There will be huge challenges for the arts, some completely unknown at this point, but there will be wins and the stage lights will shine again because people need joy and meaning, they need to celebrate life and they need to feel alive.