Local artists, performers and musicians met virtually with Congressman Charlie Crist to talk about the impact COVID-19 has had on them and the industry.
Crist kicked off the forum by highlighting the national Save Our Stages bill, which would authorize grants up to $12 million to live venue operators, producers, promoters or talent representatives. The bill appears to have bipartisan support.
Katie Talbert, a singer/songwriter based in St. Petersburg, said support from the community is essential to getting through these times, especially considering difficulties collecting unemployment for many performance workers because of the nature of the job.
Jazz musician Sean Brown shared the sentiment, noting that the economic toll on performers was not addressed until recently, despite many having been out of work since March.
“I know that businesses all over the place are hurting, but I was really kind of taken aback by how it kind of seemed like artists and performers were ignored,” Brown said.
Alex Harris, an R&B musician and founder of the Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT), brought perspective to the educational side of the industry, mentioning difficultly with prepping students for the workforce amid the pandemic.
“We are going the extra mile and asking people to go over time unpaid,” Harris said. “What we provide as services is preparing students for the workforce, we’re not just an after school program…. A lot of my alum who are on Broadway, they are from here, they are just kind of sitting at home.”
Renata Eastlick, an actress, talked about how many in the industry now have no health insurance.
“Those of us that are part of the stage actors union, which is Actors Equity, unfortunately can’t work, and don’t have insurance anymore,” Eastlick said. “To receive health insurance, they do it by work week, so you need to earn a certain number of work weeks to get your insurance. So that has been a challenge today for those actors that have preexisting conditions, or cancer or need any sort of medication, or if you just need to get your blood work done, you know, something as simple as that.”
Two former Disney employees also spoke — Saoirse Ibarguen, who was laid off in March, and Matthew McGee, who was furloughed Tuesday night.
Ibarguen talked about how hard it has been on the community with so many being out of work.
“I was one of the 20,000 that was let go,” she said. “I’ve been a cast member for seven years at Disney, and to see all of my friends, everyone lose their jobs in a span of a few weeks, it’s been a very, very hard collective grieving process.”
Kasondra Rose, a musician and aerial artist, voiced concerns over the choices some artists are being forced to make between safety and the need for work. With venues beginning to reopen at 100% capacity, she worries some are not ensuring the proper safety measures, putting artists at risk who may not have any other place to turn to for income.
“There’s not enough work — not enough safe work — right now for us to make a living,” Rose said. “It’s difficult to be creative when you’re laying on the floor of your house crying every other day. And I’m not exaggerating. You know, just speaking to mental health, it’s taken a real hard toll because you feel like you know your community is telling you you’re not essential.”
Guitarist Scott Anderson for the band Have Gun Will Travel, spoke about how many performers are small business owners but are facing difficulty because of the type of work they perform.
“We pay our taxes, we report our earnings and our income, and all that kind of stuff, we’re a true small business,” Anderson said. “We’re really struggling these days.”
Crist concluded the meeting with words of hope, and a message to get out and vote.
“We have an opportunity in this election to bring a lot of relief to an awful lot of people,” Crist said. “There’s never been a more important election in my lifetime, I can assure you that…We’ll get through it. I know we will.”