Raising The Curtain For South Florida Arts Economy And Workers
COVID-19 shut down South Florida’s arts economy. Performances, concerts and productions came to a stop for artists and behind-the-scene workers. But, slowly, the curtain is rising again.
Kelly Brown and her husband bought a home just before COVID-19 closed the economy and shut down the arts industry. She is the production stage manager at Miami City Ballet.
"That was terrifying," she said.
COVID-19 forced art out of the studios, concert halls and theaters. It meant stages were dark and fell silent. Seats were empty. Ticket sales and jobs disappeared. The commerce may have quieted for months, but the art continued — just in new ways, with new inspirations and in some unconventional places — using what is familiar to address the fear and uncertainty, and to fight the isolation.
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"We all live by the mantra that the show must go on and then suddenly it couldn't," Brown said.
Theater director Jeffrey Moss quoted Irving Berlin. "It's called show business. 'No business like it,' as Mr. Berlin says."
Moss has returned to business. His newest production opened in April at The Wick Theater in Boca Raton. "A Chorus Line" is the first Broadway musical in the theater since the pandemic. Opening night was "exciting, scary, but ultimately a thrilling experience" for Moss. He said his phone filled with text messages from friends and colleagues about being at an opening night in a theater with an audience after more than a year.
"It feels wonderful," he said.
Performers, directors, and the behind-the-scenes workers are beginning to do what they do in the arts economy again, but it looks and sounds a lot different thanks to the virus.
"I began to get a paycheck about four weeks ago," said Jane Johnson. She is a set decoration buyer based in Miami. Her work has been seen on Starz's "Magic City," "Bloodline" on Netflix, and films like "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective."
"I'm working on a film now. I prepped in Miami and then came up to Atlanta to work on it," Johnson said.
The migration of film and television work out of Florida has been happening for years since the state ended an incentive program in 2016.
Johnson said she went on unemployment and her union paid her medical insurance when she went without work. She thought about not returning to the industry she has worked in for decades.
"Approaching my 60th birthday, I've been contemplating it anyway. What I would do has been an ongoing silent saga in my head. Maybe I want to do something that impacts the world in a bigger way." she said. "I've actually thought of politics."
The number of direct jobs in the arts in Florida — artists, actors, dancers, directors, hair and make-up artists, musicians, sound engineers, lighting technicians, film and video editors — has fallen by 6% compared to before the pandemic, according to federal government statistics. The ripple effect of the arts is much larger. Arts generated more than $4 billion in economic activity in Florida in the years before the virus.
Carol Raskin and Claudia Pascual are two of those working directly behind-the-scenes in the arts. Each has more than 30 years experience on television and film sets in South Florida — Raskin as a hair stylist and Pascual as a make-up artist.
Their jobs require close contact with performers. A normal day on set could stretch 16 to 18 hours or longer before the pandemic.
"It was pretty steady," Raskin said of the work available before COVID-19 shut down productions for months. She went on unemployment after having difficulty with Florida's broken unemployment enrollment system. "Truthfully, I don't want the unemployment, I want to work."
She had one opportunity for a small job, but as she waited in line to enter a parking garage, the client canceled. She saved the $10 on parking.
"When theater and film come back, as a hairstylist, you're standing over the actors. You're in their space. I don't know what the new normal will be and the new comfort zone as it comes around," Raskin said.
Pascual waited until September to say yes to a job.
"I was waiting to see what protocols were installed for our industry because I feel like we're like kind of the first responders being makeup artists or hairstylists," she said. It was a television commercial production on a Palm Beach County golf course.
"I was very nervous and I also felt really uncomfortable," Pascual said, adding that she bought a UV sanitizing box for her make-up kit during the down time.
"I feel that because we are the first people that [performers] encounter, we sort of put them at ease. I feel that because we're wearing our mask, there's like a barrier that they can't see our smile. It's become very sterile because it has to. But also it's not as engaging as a team member. It's not," she said.
Like many businesses, the arts moved online during the pandemic. It was an effort to stay connected even if it was an imperfect pivot with tinny sound and jumpy video. For a theater sound designer like Ben Pegg in Key West, the pivot presented an opportunity.
"I did a Zoom-style performance, although it was a lot more complicated – using post-production tools to take 40 audio and video signals and the people dance around and make it interesting to watch. Luckily, I was able to pick up a virtual concert," he said.
Before the pandemic, Pegg worked with the Waterfront Theater and is technical director at the Key West Literary Seminar. He also has a background in information technology, so that has helped generate income. And, he says, he was rescued by a piano. He is a Steinway-approved piano technician.
"There weren't a lot of pianos to work on down here. And then the pandemic hit and all of a sudden I had three to do," he said.
The pandemic boredom has had people returning to a lot of pastimes — like piano playing. It also has forced big changes for how professionals create their art.
For two months Miami City Ballet held seven pop-up performances it called “To Miami, With Love.” It held one in Fort Lauderdale appropriately called “To Broward, With Love.”
In late February, the stage was the green asphalt of the Underline path in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood. The second performance was a trio of dancers performing to Irving Berlin’s “Everybody Step” — written just a few years after the 1918 flu pandemic.
As the dancers danced and the music played to its second ending, joining the applause from the outdoor crowd was a Metrorail train running on its tracks above the make-shift stage.
"You work with it," said Brown. "I mean, what's the alternative? No art. That's the worst."