Families nestle together with the children on wooden pews in the idyllic setting of the courtyard of St. Paul’s Church in London’s Covent Garden. It’s a sunlit day, and Emily Bairstow, director of the “Fiona and The Fox” theatrical experience, is asking children to imagine what the central character of the play, Fiona, looks like.
Responses pour in from the children like “She’s six-foot-tall” and “She’s got blue eye” amid giggles and laughter. And then Fiona sways in.
London’s St Paul’s Church is used to holding events – but not so much in the year of the coronavirus
In an intimate yet socially distanced setting, the children are glued to “Fiona and the Fox,” as they recreate sounds of falling rain and creaking stairs in this open-air space. It is the first in-person performance of the show since the beginning of COVID-19, produced by the Wild Geese Theatre Company (WGTC), which is renowned for creating immersive theater for young people.
“To those of us who have forged a career on live interaction, the online rehearsals felt rather alien,” Emily Bairstow explains, highlighting her experience over the past months.
“Zoom and Google Meet really did become extra members of our team.”
Millions in government funds to save the arts
Bairstow is also an actress at Smooth-Faced Gentlemen — London’s all-female Shakespeare performance company. With harsher restrictions enforced In the capital amid the rising coronavirus cases, she sees more uncertainty ahead, but remains unafraid: Earlier in March 2020, her work practically vanished overnight after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first nationwide lockdown.
Funds from the UK’s Arts Council and the Victoria Westminster Business Improvement District have enabled Bairstow to recoup some of the losses of canceled projects, and run a series of remote creative workshops for young children.
In the first 12 weeks of lockdown alone, more than 15,000 theatrical performances were axed with an estimated loss of more than £303 million (330 million euros, $395 million) in box office revenue. Estimates say that 90% of all music festivals in 2020 have been or will still be canceled.
The UK Culture Ministry have made £1.57 billion available in grants and loans to the culture sector — reaching people from independent artists to heritage and theater organisations in a bid to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
These funds are distributed by Arts Council England, and include £119 million available to individuals directly, with one £23 million already disbursed to freelancers and £96 million currently remaining available for application. However, access to various such government schemes is not always a straightforward matter.
Continuing despite lockdown restrictions
“I had no money from the government as a limited company,” said Janice Connolly, founder of the Birmingham-based “Women and Theatre” company. Connolly is an actress, comedian and artistic director, best known for her alter ego Barbara Nice — a northern housewife with a heart of gold, a retired husband, and a talent for witty one-liners.
Connolly said her live projects for the next three months either disappeared overnight or continue to be canceled and rescheduled in the future.
Janice Connolly – AKA Barbara Nice – says she had a hard time getting access to public funds made available to artists in the in the UK
Like everyone in the country, award-winning London-based actress turned Film Producer Lizzie Worsdell said she felt not only socially hit by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also experienced some challenging moments in terms of he mental health: “I live alone, so it was fairly hard at times,” she told DW.
She was in the midst of producing her first film, “Disarm,” when “most of the funding bodies suspended applications.” The plot of the film centers around the loneliness of a woman in her late thirties — a dire public health issue which will resonate with many during the pandemic, including Worsdell herself.
After a two-month delay in filming, Worsdell, her director and the all-female crew decided to make the film happen against all challenges and odds — while strictly adhering to COVID-19 directives. “Disarm” is now scheduled to premiere later in the year.
Negative influence on representation
Worsdell is passionate about creating the kind of films that will accurately reflect the untold stories of women in society with great sensitivity: “Life doesn’t just stop at 25 but looking at Hollywood, sometimes you would think it does,” she told DW. Her next film, “The Carer,” will be about a devoted daughter who puts her life on hold while trying to care for her elderly mother amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But making creative projects like these happen is becoming increasingly difficult as a direct result of the global coronavirus outbreak, says Lauren Townsend, a Yorkshire-based creative producer, stressing that the longer the pandemic draws on, the more risk-averse arts and cultural bodies will become.
“Ethnically diverse artists, talent from working-class backgrounds, and women in theater are seen as a more ‘risky’ or a less lucrative option,” Townsend said in an interview with DW. “Often we hear that those groups are ‘unengaged’ in art. I would counter that it is hard to become engaged in an industry where the potential for progression and fulfillment often feels so low.”
Government needs to communicate with creative industries
From Spice Girls to Leona Lewis, from Adele to Tracey Emin, British film, music and art is renowned internationally — with women playing a big part in an industry that prior to COVID-19 was officially estimated to generate upwards of £32 billion in Gross Value Added in 2018.
Other nations have also invested large sums in saving this important economic sector, with the German government for example, rolling out a 50 billion euro package for the country’s creative and cultural sectors — In comparison to UK’s 1.57 billion.
For Janice Connolly, theaters will always be much needed safe spaces to help people come together to share stories, laugh, cry, think, and gather strength from each other.
Lizzie Worsdell meanwhile says that for this reason, she would like to see something similar to the UK’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which saw the UK government subsidize 50% of restaurant meals over the summer, applied to the performing arts:
“Ultimately without the arts, what would anyone have done during lockdown?”
Emily Bairstow points out that more crucially, the German government discussed and addressed the creative industry’s actual requirements are with its professionals: “We need a government that recognizes the impact art and culture has on innovations, understanding, and healing,” she emphasized.