Essential arts workers

April 1, 2021 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

Essential arts workers
Performing artists adapted to the “new normal” due to Covid-19 — but hope for a change

By Susanne Janssen

Back in March, as the U.S. workforce began to upgrade their internet and started working from home, there were several groups who couldn’t do so as easily. 

While some still were able to go to work in person despite big risks, performing artists suddenly lost it all. Their work was deemed “not essential.” It was nearly impossible to transfer it completely into a virtual format and still earn a living.

Greg Boover is an actor, designer and painter who works with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts. His life changed drastically with the lockdown — no more live theater; no more projects like the yearly festival, where 10 schools would gather together in New York as well as in Massachusetts to perform; no more summer camps for young actors. 

With the lockdown, life in the entertainment world was upended dramatically. He could not, like other actors, just transfer his art form online, so he took a different path. 

“Nature is a saving grace for me,” he says. Boover discovered a new way of expressing himself — in landscaping. While gardening was always a part of his life, he transformed it into work and therapy. Building natural walls and walkways, as well as helping people redesign their gardens, kept him grounded during this pandemic. 

A play performed via Zoom “doesn’t equate to live theater, although potentially engaging and interactive, it has its limitations when the purpose is for people to feel together and listen together in a shared physical space.” he explains. “The purpose is to unite people, to feel the same thing, to listen to a story together.” 

When he shifted the focus of his artistic expression, many of his friends pivoted away. “It’s often an unstable profession, and everyone’s path looks different,” Boover says.

His older sister, Alta Dantzler, is an opera singer and voice teacher at Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance in Michigan. While she enjoys economic security and is teaching all her courses to students online, it is a completely different setting. 

“Normally, I teach my students how to reach the last row in a 4,000-seat house,” Dantzler describes, “but if you put that on a computer screen, it doesn’t work.” The sound becomes very faint, and her students don’t have possibilities to practice their performance skills.  

Other fellow opera singers who don’t teach students face an even more difficult challenge. “A MET Opera chorister doesn’t have the option to sing online.” 

Both Boover and Dantzler struggle with the pandemic definition of “essential worker.” 

“I consider my work in the arts and art education essential, but this year has definitely put things in perspective,” Boover says. “The arts are important, because they expose the truth. When our

public life comes back, how will we change what we do?” His last performance on March 13, 2020 was the opening

and — unexpectedly — closing night of his show, but companies won’t just pick up where it left off. “It’s a different world.”

Dantzler agrees. “The discussion about racism in our country will change what we’ll see on stage. For years, Porgy and Bess was the only play with people of color in the main roles, because we were told that ‘this is what people want to see.’ Now for 2021 the MET will finally bring on stage an opera written by a Black American.” Even an elite art form like the opera is now coming to terms with its diverse audience. 

Indeed, art can inspire people to experience unity and help them to integrate this experience into the rest of their lives. While during the pandemic people are concerned about how to protect themselves and others physically, it also has repercussions on mental health. That’s where the arts are of crucial importance. 

“A lot of schools have cut art classes during the pandemic. That’s the wrong way; we need creativity to work through conflicts. We need to appreciate beauty,” Boover says.

On the other coast, Gabrielle Catipon is a performer, cantor, singer and music teacher in San Jose, California. The pandemic made it impossible to perform in musicals or concerts. 

“I had my last performance in February 2020,” the 25-year-old said. For a professional singer, Covid-19 is a major challenge, since its transmission is mainly through droplets in the air. “I saw a choir practicing on a football field, but you cannot do this on a regular basis.” 

She went on Zoom and Facetime to give voice lessons to her students. Interestingly, she began to teach more students and gave more singing and piano classes than before. 

“A lot of kids are bored at home and try out music lessons,” is her explanation. Most of her students are between 10–15 years old, with a few younger children and adults. 

However, teaching online is an added challenge, since the voice quality on video conferences and calls is not great. Sometimes parents are working from home and siblings are on other video calls, making the connection unstable. 

Her students also miss socializing and performing, working together toward one goal. She misses being a cantor in church and working with different choirs. Some of her friends are worse off, like one who performed on a cruise line, whose work was totally on hold for months. 

Technicians have a hard time, too, like those who take care of the lighting and audio. Another friend participated in virtual recitals. 

“It’s frightening that Broadway will start in spring 2021 at the earliest,” Catipon added. 

Yet there could be something positive in all this. Most artists adapted quickly, she said. “I think the streaming of high-quality events is an opportunity. Broadway has become inaccessible for most people, but through streaming they can enjoy it.” 

She also noticed that the experiences of the pandemic have made people more open to discussing issues like race. 

Personally, the pandemic has put her plans to obtain a master’s degree on hold. “I went to visit several universities just before the pandemic started, but I didn’t want to start with Zoom lessons.” Instead, she used the time to reflect on how the arts influence her personal life.

All three of these artists hope that concerts, plays and exhibitions come back, after months in which gatherings have been forbidden or limited. These artists hope that the “gig economy” bounces back, because people are longing for experiences that go beyond materialistic needs. 

Essentially, it’s about feeling connected, beyond family and friends, to a community. 


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