California’s dancers, musicians and other performers have lost their audience to a pandemic. Some may never return to the stage even when the patrons are back.

Marica Kumayama Petrey had put eight months of pre-production work into the live debut for her first album with a new pop/rock band, Girl Swallows Nightingale, planned for March. She was also scheduled to wrap up filming her first feature film, Kaneko’s Owl, this summer.

All of that’s been put on hold by the pandemic, and she doesn’t expect to ever play the debut show she spent so many months preparing. Still, she said she considers herself fortunate because she could use her video editing skills to pick up other gigs this year and spend the time writing her next album.

Like Petrey, with live shows off the table, many dancers, musicians and theatre actors this year have adapted new ways to apply their skills and make money. 

Determined to “keep the arts alive,” dancers at the Redding City Ballet performed their annual Nutcracker show at an outdoor amphitheater for a streaming audience, according to Redding Arts Project owner Diana Christensen. 

In Orange County, Pacific Symphony principal trumpet Barry Perkins had always been curious about filmmaking, and the symphony’s postponed season has given him the time to take it up, he said. This year, he’s produced and played the music for videos for the Pacific Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony and Costa Rica Symphony. 

In San Francisco, the Kristin Damrow & Company has cancelled all of its dance performances and cut practices to one hour outdoors a week. But it has pivoted to making dance films and has four films planned for 2021.

Still, it’s not the same as performing in front of a live audience.

“Trying to keep our audiences engaged has been one of the biggest questions because, for live art, we need the audience — not just for financial support, but for the future of dance and future of live performance,” Kristin Damrow said. “Having those audiences seeing what we do is kind of the endgame of the work we make.”

“The arts struggle in a normal year. They’re always considered non-essential, they’re always the last to be recognized.”

Diana Christensen, the redding arts project

The performing arts sector continues to face immense financial challenges — Damrow estimated her budget has been slashed by 75%. Federal Payment Protection Program loans in the spring offered only a temporary reprieve. 

Most California performing arts centers, dance troupes and orchestras, including the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Opera and Segerstrom Center for the Arts, have been forced to shut down since March, except for some virtual events.

A dashboard created by Americans for the Arts found that 97% of responding arts organizations in California have canceled events this year, for a total lost attendance of nearly 8 million patrons. About 42% of organizations indicated they had to lay off or furlough artists, and 13% are not confident they’ll survive the pandemic. 

“The arts, which is dependent upon gathering for a living, particularly the performing arts sector, shut down, and, effectively, we have been shut down ever since,” said Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts. “You’re looking at the 12 to 18 months of being out of business…they don’t teach this in business school, you don’t have that in your strategic plan.”

With so much time out of work, many artists are considering leaving the industry altogether, she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a $500 million grant program for small businesses, specifically singling out cultural organizations. Baker said the funds will be a good start, but she also called on legislators to fund a one-time budget increase for the California Arts Council, the state’s arts agency. 

“Whether people recognize it or not, the work of artists and creative individuals has helped us all cope with these unprecedented times.”

anne bown-crawford, California Arts Council Executive Director

California Arts Council Executive Director Anne Bown-Crawford said in an email that her agency is grateful that its budget was not reduced this year, allowing it to distribute more than $1 million in relief funds to artists. 

“Whether people recognize it or not, the work of artists and creative individuals has helped us all cope with these unprecedented times,” she said. “Listening to music, watching films, writing, dancing, making art — this helps us process feelings of loss and hopelessness, to reflect, and stay connected to our shared humanity.”

Even before the pandemic, the performing arts were often last on society’s priority list.

“The arts struggle in a normal year,” said Christensen of the Redding ballet. “They’re always considered non-essential, they’re always the last to be recognized.”

Baker said the industry is looking for “parity” in the reopening guidelines with restaurants and bars, which were temporarily allowed to seat customers before the new lockdowns went into effect this month. Performing arts shows, however, have remained shut down the entire time, despite taking place in venues with state-of-the-art ventilation systems and being skilled at how to move people and equipment around the world safely. 

Even when restrictions loosen, artists cannot immediately return to staging large shows since they need time to prepare.

“If you want to reopen a performing arts center, or theater production or dance production or a concert, it’s months and months and months of rehearsals and planning and booking the tour and bringing that team together,” Baker said. “It’s not an easy on-and-off switch.”

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James is a health intern at CalMatters. He is a junior at Harvard University studying government and East Asian Studies. Prior to joining CalMatters, James was an intern on The Hill’s healthcare team....