Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Performers are among the most vulnerable victims of our newly shuttered world

Tracy Lynn Olivera and her husband, Evan Casey, outside their Silver Spring home. The couple have no idea when their acting gigs, or side hustles, will resume. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Actor Evan Casey was two weeks into the run of “The Amateurs” at Olney Theatre Center — a play set during a 14th-century plague — when the Maryland venue closed because of coronavirus concerns. His actress wife, Tracy Lynn Olivera, was deep into her duties as assistant director of “Guys and Dolls,” the spring production at Ford’s Theatre, when that musical was shut down. It has been rescheduled for next spring.

The Maryland couple have no idea when their performing careers will resume, as theater closures are now stretching into late spring. They’ve also lost their side hustles, including Casey’s work with Capitol Steps and Olivera’s with a wedding band. In the span of just a few days, almost all of their income dried up.

“You’re always prepared for lean times, but you tend to know in advance when the lean times are coming,” Casey says. “This came out of nowhere and it came quickly. And it’s not just us, it’s everyone.”

Everyone includes musicians, visual artists, designers, dancers and other freelancers who are part of Washington’s vibrant arts economy. They are musicians with no tour dates. Art handlers with postponed exhibitions. Actors, dancers and designers booked for upcoming productions that are now in limbo.

“We all live paycheck to paycheck,” says veteran D.C. actor Bobby Smith, who was in rehearsals for the world premiere of “Camille Claudel” at Signature Theatre last month. Work was halted and the show postponed.

National Symphony Orchestra musicians cut from payroll during closure

Along with other gig workers, artists are among the most vulnerable victims of our newly shuttered world. The D.C. government led the relief effort with a $25 million micro-grant program that allows freelance artists to apply, and the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus includes changes to unemployment benefits that will help performing artists who are seeing future work disappear.

Over 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in March

These are significant victories in a dark time, says Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents 51,000 performers and stage managers and that pushed hard for those funds. Entertainers work under unusual circumstances, she adds, and such programs acknowledge that.

“We often find ourselves with a promise of work, or a contact that is in the future,” Shindle says, so expanding the rules to include that lost work is critical and will help actors during the ­ever-growing hiatus. “Most of us are on pause, wondering whether what we have lined up for the summer will happen. It’s difficult.”

Private emergency funds are available for specific groups, including dancers, writers, musicians and arts administrators. TheatreWashington’s Taking Care of Our Own Fund is providing emergency assistance to area theater professionals. More than 150 artists have applied for the $500 grants.

Arts groups, never flush with cash, are fighting to survive the pandemic

The program is meant to address the overwhelming uncertainty of the time, says TheatreWashington President Amy Austin.

“The nature of their art is to gather, and if we can’t gather, it’s really hard to do the things they do, including teaching,” Austin says. “It looked at first like it would go to March 30, and now we’re looking much further.”

Terence Nicholson and his fellow art handlers — freelancers who install and then take down complex exhibitions in the area’s many museums — were still recovering from last year’s federal government shutdown, which closed many of the city’s museums. Now exhibitions that were on Nicholson’s calendar for spring and summer, including the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama show, are in limbo as the museums remain shut indefinitely.

“I’m an artist. Whenever I’m not hanging art, I’m making art,” says the D.C. resident. “Now I’m just trying to be as creative as I can to figure out how to pay the mortgage.”

Some of Nicholson’s art was set to be in two exhibitions that are now canceled, which means the loss of potential sales from their exposure. “I’m not showing work, but I have the time to make work,” he says.

An artist pieces together his life story

Maryland actor Awa Sal Secka, who recently appeared in Signature Theatre’s “Gun & Powder,” is on the sidelines until the pandemic recedes. She says she will research the changes to unemployment rules and file her 2019 taxes in anticipation of a refund. But with no acting income until probably the fall, she may have to move from her apartment. A rent increase is no longer affordable.

The timing is terrible, as this was going to be a peak year for work. “I had a lot to do, so it has definitely made things difficult,” she said.

Secka and other actors are also worried that some of the theaters that have provided roles in the past will not reopen, which means that the loss of work could continue for years.

“That is a heartbreaking thought,” she says.