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Performing Artists Struggling Economically During Pandemic

Musicians on stage
Andy Frasco performed at The Broadberry in February. (Photo: Joey Wharton)

*This story was reported by VPM News intern Alexander Broening

When Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Virginia into lockdown in March, live music, theater, and other performing arts came to an immediate halt. Since then, many artists, designers, and performers have struggled to find work or adapt to the restrictions.

According to the Virginia Employment Commission, more than 25% of regular employees in the live events industry filed for unemployment in mid-July. And because the data is self-reported and doesn’t include contract workers like freelancers, the commission says the percentage is likely to be higher.

The Broadberry in Richmond had to delay or cancel hundreds of concerts following the lockdown. But as a quick reopening looked less and less likely, the owner, Lucas Fritz, started looking for new ways to deliver music to the community.

 “We’ve transitioned the venue from an in-person concert venue to a soundstage, where we’re hosting local and regional artists to do livestreams,” Fritz said in an interview with VPM. The infrastructure and technology was already in place Fritz said, and he hopes to eventually do about two livestreams per week.

The head lighting designer at the Broadberry, Trevor Creany, says he’s been able to work a couple of jobs during the lockdown, mostly designing lighting for the Broadberry’s livestreams.

“I’ve never been so excited to have seven shows confirmed for July,” Creany said. “Usually it's 30 shows, with one travel day.” 

Creany also works as the touring designer for the Brooklyn-based group Turkuaz, but their touring plans have been put on hold for the foreseeable future. He doesn’t expect live, in-person music to return anytime soon.

 “Initially, we thought it would just be two weeks,” he said. Now, he’s hoping for the spring of 2021 at the earliest.

Creany filed for unemployment insurance right after the lockdown started in mid-March, and has been receiving state and federal aid since then. And while he said his gig jobs continue to trickle in, he’s been furloughed from his job at the Broadberry, and so he qualifies for aid.

“The unemployment is helping a lot. I’m basically able to pay all my bills,” Creany said.

However, the weekly $600 federal payments from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that formed a substantial part of Creany’s income ended on July 31. When VPM spoke to him late last month, Creany said that he wasn’t sure what he would do without the federal aid.

Pres. Donald Trump signed executive orders on Saturday that would add $300 of federal money to weekly unemployment checks, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress have questioned the legality of the orders.

The Richmond Triangle Players has also benefited from federal aid. The theater group, which focuses on productions relevant to LGBTQ+ people, was about to premiere their fifth show of the season when the pandemic forced them to scrap the rest of their production plans.

But they quickly applied for and received a federal PPP loan, which has allowed the staff to continue working and plan their upcoming season.

Lucian Restivo, the group’s artistic director, says the loan has also let the group use their down time to make needed upgrades. “Nothing’s going on in the theater, so we’ve been able to renovate some things that’ve been on the back burner for a while,” Restivo said. The upgrades included rebuilding the Richmond Triangle Players’ stage, which Restivo says he’s excited to show off when theater-goers return.

The Richmond Triangle Players now plan to start their upcoming season in November, and while they currently hope for socially-distanced, in-person attendance, they’ve also increased their ability to live stream and film shows for online audiences.