25 June 2020 Volume :8 Issue :28

COVID-19 and the Performing Arts

COVID-19 and the Performing Arts
UKZN hosted a webinar on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Performing Arts sector.

The impact of COVID-19 on the Performing Arts sector was the topic of discussion at a webinar facilitated by Dr Lliane Loots, UKZN lecturer in Drama and Performance Studies and recent winner of the CNN African Voices Changemakers Award.

Globally, the sudden effect of COVID-19 has generated widespread precarity and insecurity, affecting livelihoods and careers. Within the Performing Arts sector, physical distancing has curtailed public performances.

Considering the creative, financial, emotional and psychological issues facing the Performing Arts industry during the lockdown period, the prospect of digital platforms and what this means for artists, especially those working historically in embodied and live practices, has raised the question of whether it offers adequate space for the soul of an artist.

Introducing the discussion with the above as background, Loots said: ‘COVID-19 ushered people into a space without enough time to prepare. We found ourselves diving into this, making mistakes and confronting challenges without any frame of reference to guide us.’

Writer, director and lecturer at the University of Zululand Gift Tapiwa Marovatsanga provided insight into his work with young artists in a local township. ‘Part of my community engagement includes skills development in an after-school programme, creating a safe space for dialogue and encouraging learners to find their own way within the industry.

‘Under lockdown regulations, the programme has ceased,’ said Marovatsanga. ‘Some of the children are now stuck in very difficult family conditions, such as child-headed households with no relief or place to play. That safe haven and psycho-social support, they once relied on, is gone. Stress and depression have started to reveal themselves.’

Singer, songwriter, actress, television presenter and alumna Ayanda Mpama addressed socio-political responsibility in the sector. ‘Art and politics have historically, always been connected. Even during apartheid, artists were able to operate with protest theatre, which was evocative and far-reaching. But now we need to use social media, a tool that not everyone is comfortable or familiar with, or in reach of, to try and communicate our feelings and speak about what society is going through. We too as artists are also going through the same thing!

‘Artists from having work planned for this year have suddenly had it ripped out from under their feet by COVID-19 and have had to seek other forms of getting income. The worry is that we might lose them because they feel they have no option and need to leave what they love in order to sustain themselves,’ said Mpama.

On monetising the industry under lockdown, Marovatsanga explained that making work available online was one thing but having audiences willing to pay for it was another. ‘Many people cannot afford to pay based on priority. Even people not classified as “artists” post online, and entertain under different sub genres. Therefore, the idea of paying begs the question of how much the performance is worth.

‘What is encouraging, from the local scene, is that some artists have created a Facebook page and Twitter handle, pulling together as a collective to sharpen themselves, share and survive the period and look beyond,’ he said.

On the notion of adapt or die, Loots said technology was a part of life, demanding people work on new technologies online, where possible. ‘Dancers’ work in connection with other bodies and often it is the smell of the work; it is the visceral, sematic, liminal connectivity that we have with people that is live theatre. However, at this time, we must not lose the politics of the body.’

Agreeing with this, Marovatsanga added: ‘The digital divide is real, not everyone has access to resources such as data or good connectivity. Theatre is ephemeral, creating an intimate space in the here and now. The relationship between the audience, storytellers and the story brings a connectivity. Now we have to ask if we are even able to adapt as directors to digital space, because it is not just about a technical knowledge but aiming to create a digital stage. The fact is, it isa different medium.’

Said Mpama: ‘Apart from organisations commissioning work from artists, and some relief measures in place, much more needs to be done within the sector to help and lift artists. With all our challenges, we must fill our cup while embracing this change. We now have a new medium through which to tell our stories and be inspired.’

Musicians Thulile Zama and David Smith of the UKZN Centre for Jazz and Popular Music who have been running the Music Unlocked Sessions, treated participants to one of their original compositions: Gave My Heart.

The Music Unlocked Sessions support South African musicians with each artist performing 20-minute sets in an online concert taking place every Wednesday under lockdown. It costs R40 to get a “secret link” to watch performances.

Musicians can submit a video created especially for the concerts - probably a solo performance or minimal ensemble because of social distancing. Artists can also submit previously recorded videos not widely available on the Internet. Any genre can be submitted.

Email zamat1@ukzn.ac.za for more information.

Words: Rakshika Sibran

Image: Shutterstock

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