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How to be an artist in a global pandemic.

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

By Andrew Eaton-Lewis


Are you struggling to imagine a future in the arts in the Coronavirus crisis? Andrew Eaton-Lewis suggests some survival tips….

There is strength in solidarity


Well before the UK went into Coronavirus lockdown, lots of people I know had already lost their entire livelihoods. Musicians, playwrights, actors, choreographers, dancers, producers, directors, stage managers, set designers, technicians, production crews… as festivals, tours, and TV and film shoots began to be postponed, thousands of people working in the arts lost all of their future income for up to a year, almost overnight. Soon afterwards the venues began closing too, and then everything else. As I write this, the Edinburgh festival – still over four months away but too big to postpone a decision any longer – is being cancelled too. In that moment I lost what was to be my entire freelance income this year.

It’s frightening, obviously, and yet there’s comfort in knowing that almost everybody is in the same dire position, and that we are all united by the common cause of keeping everyone as safe as possible from the virus. Like a lot of people, I’ve found social media to be a source of strength, a way to collectively grieve, to figure out what to do together, and to swap information. And because this affects everyone, it’s clearly in the interest of everyone in the arts to contribute to this conversation, and to lobby funders and government for appropriate support. In the past couple of weeks I’ve reconnected with fellow artists and arts workers who I’d not spoken to in ages, to discuss coping strategies and try to think up new projects that might keep us occupied – and, ideally, in paid work - in these strange new times.

Here are a few web-links that people have been sharing:

http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/covid-19-resources-uk-theatre-freelancers/ - a comprehensive list of useful resources assembled by Exeunt magazine.

https://creativeentrepreneursclub.co.uk/ - the Creative Entrepeneurs Club website, which has dropped its paywall for a year to help support artists, including free one-to-one advice sessions.

https://www.creativescotland.com/funding/archive/open-project-funding - information on Creative Scotland’s new bridging bursary scheme, which opens this week.

Our creativity will help us get through this

While people working in the arts were among the first to lose their livelihoods to the Coronavirus lockdown, we might also be among the most equipped to get through it. Our lifeblood, after all, is the ability to find creative solutions to difficult problems. We are, on the whole, very resourceful and adaptable, many of us highly skilled at running innovative projects on the tightest of budgets. Most of us are already accustomed to living in financially precarious circumstances, never sure where the next pay cheque will come from. A lot of us are already accustomed to working alone, from home, to our own deadlines. And, unlike other professions who have gradually seen their working rights eroded in a world of disempowered trade unions and zero hours contracts, a lot of artists have always lived like this. We have wisdom to offer. Apart from anything else, what is one of the main things that people turn to for comfort in frightening times? Films, TV shows, music. Art.

But it’s ok not to be making art

In the weeks since the lockdown, artists and arts workers everywhere have been throwing much of their energy into finding innovative new ways to survive – live-streamed gigs, theatre shows, and DJ sets, tutorials hosted via Zoom, podcasts, writing poetry, prose, music or plays about life in lockdown etc. As a poet friend put it on Facebook last week though, “don't worry if you’re not feeling like you have it in you to be massively creatively 'entrepreneurial' right now. Don't worry about you/ your work being forgotten in the heat of online streams and nightly gigs. This is a messed up situation, and we're only a few weeks in. Take all the time you need to get your mind around it. If it helps any of you, I've got nae clue what I'm going to do. I've never been much for online sharings of my work. If, like me, you’re feeling aw of a twiddle with it, just ride with that. I've felt like this even outwith a global pandemic, I am reminding myself often. The 'eureka' moment will come. It always does.”

In other words, don’t be too hard on yourself. As one current meme puts it, “it’s ok not to be at your most productive during a f_---ing global pandemic”. And anyway there are more important things than work – connecting with and supporting your community as best you can, helping out neighbours, checking in on family and friends. Do that well, and the rest will follow.

Think of this as an opportunity

One of the most reassuring pieces of writing I’ve read this week is ‘The paradoxes of trying to make art during a pandemic’ by Alice Saville, editor of Exeunt magazine. She talks eloquently about the shock and grief so many people are currently feeling, how “everyone I know is simultaneously experiencing the kind of crises you only get once a decade, all at once, encompassing employment, family, anxiety, housing, sickness”. But she ends on a hopeful note. “A very rare silver lining to this whole mess it that it’s forcing people to think collectively, not individually – and to realise that we need a society that values and looks after everyone, not just the few who are healthy, productive, and securely employed. The challenge will be to dream up ways to stay in the room together, supporting each other, when the crisis is over.” You can read the full article at exeuntmagazine.com/features/paradoxes-trying-make-art-pandemic.

Here are two pieces of writing I’ve read this week about how this crisis might be an opportunity to reshape the world, economically, politically, and culturally. Both have helped.

Remember how lucky you are to live in the Hebrides

This obviously only applies to people reading this in the Hebrides, but since that’s the target audience for this blog it feels like a reasonable point to make. Nowhere is immune from Coronavirus, as demonstrated this week when the first confirmed cases inevitably emerged on Lewis. However there are far worse places to be in a lockdown, especially in Spring when new life is everywhere.

Forget your perfect offering

As a musician, I have unsurprisingly taken solace in music. The last thing I was working on before the lockdown was the soundtrack for How The Light Gets In, a new musical by Lewis-based theatre-maker Laura Cameron-Lewis that was supposed to have its first performance at An Lanntair in mid-April.

The show takes its title from Leonard Cohen's famous song, Anthem, a signature song for Camille O'Sullivan, one of the creative team. One of several songs we recorded in March was a cover of Anthem, with me singing a guide vocal that would later be replaced. We then decided Anthem wouldn't make it into the show, since licensing it would probably be a nightmare, and we wrote a new song to replace it. When I listened back to the recording though, I thought it was quite good for something done in one take, and that it might be a nice, comforting thing to share with people at this particular moment. Anthem, after all, is one of those songs that resonates most strongly in the most difficult times, when people feel defeated, or frightened, or hopeless. If something is broken, the song says, you can either obsess over its brokenness, and all the cracks appearing in your life, or you can think of the cracks as places where the light is shining in, and instead focus on the light. Which feels like a positive message to be sending out into the world just now.

I mention this because I’m usually a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to releasing music. Anthem is a rare example of me letting something out into the world that's not really finished. But somehow that feels right for this moment. It’s an imperfect offering of a song about imperfect offerings, for a time when perfection is impossible and we're all just trying to get through the day as well as we can. You can download it for free, should you want to, at http://andreweatonlewis.bandcamp.com/

Andrew Eaton-Lewis is a musician, events programmer and independent theatre producer who lives in Uig. His website is at www.sruth-mara.com

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