I recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, asking him to extend the CERB. Here is how I began:
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,
“I am a professional classical singer, actor, voice teacher, producer and creative visionary and am currently in collaboration with artists from the circus and dance communities. I have committed eight years of my life to higher education, and I am a qualified professional in my field. Like tens of thousands of my colleagues, my career has been paralyzed as has the rest of the world by COVID-19 and I have no work on the horizon until 2021 at the very earliest… my students cannot afford to take lessons because all of their work has been cancelled and if the CERB is not extended, I have no idea how I will be able to survive.”
This was answered by the government on June 16 when they announced that the CERB would be extended from 16 weeks to 24 weeks. While I know that this is not going to be a solution in the long term for the arts sector, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the arts sector has and is continuing to be supported during this precarious time by the Canadian government, and to that end I feel grateful. However, at the same time the reality is that an 8-week “bandaid” extension of the CERB is not going to be able to sustain us. Our industry will be the last one to open up, and that makes the arts sector the most vulnerable.
The arts sector has been having meetings, trying to make plans, creating protocol to have in place for when our industry reopens, but it is not that simple…we cannot just work from home, creating our art in our spaces indefinitely for the online community. Our workplaces are in the concert halls, the theatres, the movie sets. We do our work in public spaces. How does one expect to social distance an orchestra of between 80-100 members on a stage, or an opera chorus that might be up to 120 members for a large Verdi opera? Or what about on a film set? Large scale productions that were filmed recently in Toronto, for example, Mrs. America and The Boys, some days had upwards of 500 extras. This is such a complex situation, to which there are no easy answers. How will theatres survive if they have to limit their seating to under 50% capacity? Or less? Many arts organizations have made decisions to give the pandemic space and not move ahead to open prematurely. Major performing institutions have shut down (The Metropolitan Opera for example), Vancouver Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria and the VSO have suspended their [in-person] seasons for 18 months (!!!) The Next Stage Theatre Festival has just announced that they are cancelling their 2021 season. Soundstreams announced at the end of May that their 20/21 season is being put on hold. All of the theatres are closed with no set timeline for reopening (that I’m aware of), and there are no film or TV projects currently in production. People are shifting to digital platforms, and the Canada Council for the Arts in conjunction with the CBC have created a microgrant to help artists realize their current projects into this new format. But again, this is only for the short term.
So, what does this mean to the arts sector? Yes, of course we want to work! We don’t want to be sitting here doing nothing while the government keeps us afloat. We are not used to taking “handouts”, and in fact, for some, this is likely the first time they have received government support as Employment Insurance (EI) is not available to most of the self-employed sector. We are innately creative beings and working in our field is what gives our life meaning and without it many of us feel as if we are just an empty shell. But what will a return to work even look like? Will we be able to do our work on the same scale? Likely not. I’ve heard rumours that the TSO is looking at a chamber music format to allow for social distancing on stage. Will the days of 500 extras on set be replaced by digital reproductions on green screens? Will the opera chorus or any chorus for that matter, be reduced to chamber-sized ensembles? Will theatres, concert halls and large-scale performance venues even be able to afford to run at a reduced capacity?
The frailty of an artist’s mental health is well known. Having to deal with the pressures of a gigging self-directed and often self-employed lifestyle can be incredibly stressful in itself, but when all of your creative opportunities suddenly dry-up and you have no idea if or when they might come back to life again, imagine the compounded stressors with this unreal uncertainty. One of the new initiatives of CERB going forward is that it will be asking those who apply to look for work, to check the job bank, and possibly to retrain. Is this fair to ask an artist to reinvent themselves? We are highly trained, experts in our field and many have countless years of higher education and on top of very successful performing careers, some maintain a teaching practice in private studios and also in universities. What does the government expect us to retrain as? Are we expected to just throw our careers out the window in order to do any job that will help sustain us in the meantime until our industry is able to resurrect itself? And even then, what jobs will be available? It’s very likely that when the rest of the world reopens, aside from the arts sector, that those people who were laid off of their jobs will be returning to them, so in reality, what jobs does that leave for the tens of thousands of us who work in the arts?
This is not an easy situation, the CERB as it currently functions has been a lifeline, but it is not the solution to how we in the arts sector will be able to sustain ourselves until the arts industry reopens…if it ever reopens. And keep in mind that in order to be in shape for when it does reopen, professional singers still need to keep their voices in shape by training, taking lessons and that all costs money and requires a consistent time commitment.
I have been reading many posts on Facebook and one comment stuck out to me in response to my colleague, opera singer Brett Polegato’s post, saying that “we are not the enemy, that we are struggling”, as is the rest of the world right now…but in our case, our future is so very uncertain…more so than in any other sector. Please fellow humans and the government, have some compassion, and support us at this very precarious time.
Thank you for listening.
Stacie Dunlop, professional singer, currently under-employed due to COVID-19
[Update: June 23. This article has been updated to clarify that “in-person” seasons have been suspended.]