Musicians, actors and other performers may not ultimately be the hardest hit during the Covid-19 crisis, but when theaters, restaurants and bars all closed, they were the first to feel the financial gut-punch.
The curtain fell hard on the gig economy – independent entertainment contractors, paid job-by-job.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking of myself as an ex-musician, professionally,” says pianist and composer Jeremy Douglass, who lives and dies by the frequency of his IRS 1099 forms.
“I don’t know how it’s going to come back. I can’t even picture next year, let alone the next three months. I can’t imagine people rushing back into theaters.”
Douglass only recently gave up the weekly grind of playing piano in bars and nightclubs for arranging and performing the music for Footloose, American Stage’s now-postponed outdoor spring extravaganza. “It was kind of like a graduation ceremony for me,” he says, “after paying dues for so long.”
His Florida Bjorkestra was in rehearsals for its third “Buffyfest,” performing the uber-popular music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The earlier productions were immensely popular, selling out the Palladium Theater.
“I had finally set myself up with the Palladium to make some good money on the show,” Douglass sighs.
“So financially, yeah, that hurts, but I think what hurt more was the momentum lost. American Stage offered me the MD gig for their park show. That’s not a small thing. I felt an immense amount of responsibility and honor to have that role.
“And to have it snatched away by the universe, I kind of take that personally.”
His wife, violinist Rebecca Zapen Douglass, has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and is scheduled to undergo a mastectomy Thursday (the family received massive contributions through a GoFundMe page, for which Rebecca and Jeremy are grateful).
To help defray costs, Douglass had over-booked himself through the spring and summer. “I just piled on so much work, and it all evaporated in a day,” he says. “All of it.”
He estimates he’s lost “to the north of $20,000” so far.
And so he sits at home and wonders if he’ll have to give it all up eventually, for the good of his family, and maybe, ultimately, to help in community rebuilding efforts.
“I swing wildly between boredom, and happy tears being around my kids so much, and just sheer terror,” Douglass says.
Debt, of course, never sleeps. And actress, costume designer and choreographer Katrina Stevenson, who had three about-to-launch shows cancel in a single day, is concerned about paying her health insurance, and her car insurance, “and the student loan people, they want their money, too.”
An adjunct in the theater department at St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus, Stevenson finds herself playing a new, hitherto untried, role. “The schools are closed, so I have to teach acting and costuming online. Which is not ideal for either one of those, and it’s not necessarily what the students signed up for. We’re learning to adapt, but it’s difficult.”
Even that will slow down significantly after the current semester, and so she’s looking at an uncertain – and frankly, scary – future.
All four of SPC’s proposed summer shows vanished, too.
“There’s always a little bit of Jenga that you play,” she explains. “Technically, I stop earning an income in May. That’s my last paycheck from the college. I have money to pay my taxes – if I don’t actually pay my taxes, I could probably go another month, maybe two.
“If I have to go to Whole Foods and bag groceries for the summer, I guess I’ll have to.”
Approximately 90 percent of singer/songwriter Kasondra Rose’s income is generated through live performance. She also teaches group fitness classes – from yoga to dance to indoor cycling – and picks up gigs here and there as an aerial performer, hanging and swinging from hoops and silks.
“I’m a saver,” Rose says. “I understand that music is an unstable business, and so I’ve always tried to spend way under my means, and make sure that I have a good financial safety net for myself. But you don’t want to just sit and watch that disappear.”
Rose performed, alongside Stevenson, in Jobsite’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in January. It was her first-ever acting job, and because she couldn’t work as a performing musician during the show’s run, she accepted a friend’s offer to do part-time bookkeeping in his accounting office.
Today, that part-time gig is her lifeline.
“I have no misgivings that once everything opens back up,” she says, “it could be another six months to a year, to two years, before I’m able to build my schedule up to what it would need for me to make a living doing it like I was two weeks ago.
“If that means working for an accountant, or hauling groceries, or whatever, I’ll make it work. I’m trying not to dwell on how devastating it is. And especially that all of my friends are going through the same thing at the same time as me.”