This article was originally published on 15 April, 2020 on GCN’s website.
With the whole world on lockdown, creatives have had to find new ways to engage with audiences. LGBT+ performers speak about their work, how this time has affected them, and how people can still support them.
“I had a conversation with a fucking crow, man.” Wallis Bird is one of the LGBT+ performers and artists telling me about the impact the Covid-19 lockdown has had on their lives.
“I was walking in the park and a crow, honest to God, almost walked onto my hand. It stood there and was just barking at me for a couple of minutes, and we were just chatting to each other.”
Bird in name, and bird communicator in nature, she is an Irish musician based in Berlin, Germany. Like many other LGBT+ performers, she has found her livelihood suddenly upended as a result of the global lockdown due to the pandemic.
“I’ve had to postpone a 15 date tour around Ireland. That’s being rescheduled, but my summer festivals are all but gone. There’s hope that some festivals will continue in July, but I really doubt that’s going to happen.”
She is not alone. The Covid-19 crisis has had a severe impact on economies across the world. Ireland’s unemployment rate has jumped to 16.5%, with almost 300,000 people now in receipt of Covid-19 unemployment payments. Freelancers and the self-employed are amongst the worst hit. Many of them work in creative or entertainment industries.
Xnthony is an Irish performer who mixes pop culture, queer culture, and cabaret. Based in London, UK, he has also experienced major cancellations over the last number of weeks.
“I had to cancel my Sodom & Begorrah event – an Irish queer night I run every year in a festival, and that was a really terrible experience because it was just really hard to make a call before the British government made a call about it.”
He has lost thousands of pounds as a result. A week before the lockdown, he was granted Arts Council funding by the UK government to create a new show, a development he calls lucky: “They just cancelled all new applications, so I was just really lucky.”
Bird has also availed of financial aid in the form of a €5000 stipend provided to freelancers by the German government. On Friday, April 3rd, the acting Irish Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan announced a €1 million fund for artists to make work which would then be available for free online. This has been criticised by LGBT+ production company THISISPOPBABY, who stated: “We believe these measures are not consummate with the relief being shown to other industries.”
One of the criticisms levelled at this announcement is that it does not apply to artists who are already in receipt of the weekly €350 welfare payment supplied by the Irish government. Jack Rua is a musical artist based in Dublin, Ireland. He had been gearing up for his headline show, ‘The Narcissus Ball’, in March, which was eventually cancelled as a result of the global pandemic. As someone who is in receipt of the government’s unemployment payment, he is not eligible for artists’ fund.
“I am fortunate enough to have saved up a bit of money over the last few months as I’ve been living at home and working in a restaurant full-time,” he says.
Wallis Bird is someone who has always planned ahead for such an eventuality: “The way I look at life is like, anything can happen, and anything is happening right now, and I’ve never not been prepared for this […] I mean, yes I’ve lost my earnings, but fuck it, things can’t always grow. There always has to be a time when empires fall.”
Many who work in entertainment have felt the tangible effects of not having an audience to play to. ELM, an Irish LGBT+ pop band, had a string of live performances slated for the summer months, now all gone. “We planned to play Mighty Hoopla in London,” lead vocalist Dylan Walsh informs me. “It’s like the Love Sensation of the UK. We were going to play Pride in London.”
Walsh posits that not having a live sphere in which to perform results in the loss of common ground for queer-identifying individuals: “I feel like our fans are all very much queer, maybe not in their sexuality, but just in their being free. Our fans seem to be a lovely family. There seems to be a community vibe and that’s what we have on other fandoms because we are […] oppressed and now we’re all coming together and this is our safe space.
“I miss the live side. I feel like that’s where we really connect with our audience.”
Lady Kitt, an artist and drag performer from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, elaborates on Walsh’s point: “I think all marginalised groups are disproportionately affected. Specifically for queer artists, our work, as well as being our living, is often a way to connect with our community and assert aspects of our identities that we might not feel able to display in other parts of our lives.”
With mass gatherings banned in many parts of the world, those who work in entertainment have had to find ways to work within the restrictions. An assistant producer for a prominent current affairs show informs me: “I’m used to going to an office every day and then to a studio to record. Being at studio is really thrilling, everything is manic all day […] It really makes you feel like you’re in an Aaron Sorkin show.
“This series, everyone is working from their respective homes. All the production and editorial teams are communicating on WhatsApp and Zoom and Google Docs, and the cast are filming from their houses with equipment that was dropped off pre-lockdown. Not being able to see the show recorded is very strange, but the editors are all doing an amazing job doing everything remotely.
“Audiences seem to be responding well. I think there’s a bit of honesty and vulnerability to seeing people in their homes, maybe a bit worried, addressing the things that people are thinking about at the moment, especially if they’re things that the government or much of the media are seeking to evade.”
There indeed seems to be a drive towards ‘home-made’ creativity at this time, with many LGBT+ performers and creatives developing content for online consumption during lockdown. Viewing parties, live gigs, sketches, and ‘pub’ quizzes are among the digital alternatives offered by some.
Luke Faulkner, a Dublin-based musician and digital artist working under the persona PureGrand, says of this: “I’ve seen some fun live concerts where artists take requests and interact with fans which is nice. Some are a bit questionable, but sure look, if the pandemic inspires Bernie next door to start becoming a live beauty blogger I say rock and roll!”
The collective need to reach out and communicate with each other has resulted in greater solidarity and an increased need for collaboration. Jack Rua has begun to work with an artist in the US on an EP, while Lady Kitt is working with Disability Arts Online, a UK-based initiative commissioning artists for an online exhibition under the hashtag #Portraits4PPE.
With the loss of income from live performances during lockdown, LGBT+ performers are encouraging their supporters to engage with their digital output as much as possible. “Buy an artist’s merch,” Bird says. “Buy directly from their website because they’re going to be sending it out personally I’d imagine. If they’re on Patreon, now is the time to join them.”
“Listen to their music, on Spotify or on Apple Music or whatever,” Dylan Walsh from ELM adds. “Share it on your socials […] It just shows the artist that we’re still here, this is all going to pass, and then we’re going to have a big old bop.”
Lady Kitt adds, “Many artists I know have lost pretty much their whole income in the last two weeks. Please try and find ways to support the work and livelihood of artists. While we’re all isolating and distancing, it’s more often than not the films, music, online content, books, and creative activities that make us feel happy, engaged, entertained, connected and human. Please try and support the people who make that stuff happen.”