Nova Scotia

Arts and culture sector confronts sequel of uncertainty heading into summer

2020 was a difficult year for many people who make their living in the arts and culture sector. With provincial lockdown measures still in place, 2021 is shaping up to be another challenging year.

Gathering limits, other hurdles make for challenging work environment

Organizers of the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo are once again forced to offer a reduced, online-only program as they cope with COVID-related public health protocols. (Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo)

Before the arrival of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, 2020 was looking like a banner year for Ryan Rogerson.

The veteran actor was cast in a production at Halifax's Neptune Theatre that was to run for several months, and he also had summer work lined up with Two Planks and a Passion Theatre in Canning.

"So I was going to have sort of the dream gig: an overlapping gig where you're rehearsing one show and in performances for the other one," he said. "It was set up to be one of the best years of my career, but none of it happened."

When the pandemic landed in the province last year and lockdown measures were instituted in an effort to keep things under control, like many people, Rogerson saw his work wiped out.

2020 was poised to be a busy year for actor Ryan Rogerson, until COVID-19 cancelled all his work. (Submitted by Ryan Rogerson)

But while many businesses have been able to ramp back up to varying degrees in between waves, it's been more of a struggle for the cultural sector, which is often so dependent on large gatherings on which COVID feeds. Statistics Canada information shows the sector to be among the hardest hit, and the prevailing wisdom is it will be one of the last to fully reopen.

Earlier this year, optimism was beginning to return for Rogerson. He'd just wrapped rehearsals for a show that was to open at the end of April, but then that was cancelled as the full force of the pandemic's third wave came crashing down on Nova Scotia.

After recent weeks that have seen case numbers reach all-time highs, testing hospital systems, shutting down borders and reducing gathering limits to nil, many in the arts and culture sector find themselves having a bad case of déjà vu.

What's played out over the last few weeks has caused Mike MacSween and his team at Celtic Colours to pause before making final decisions on the look of this year's festival in October.

Last year caused the music and cultural festival, like many events, to get creative. Rather than having thousands of people converge on Cape Breton Island for live events that go into the wee hours of the morning, organizers instead opted for a series of live-stream concerts.

Mike MacSween is the executive director of Celtic Colours International Festival. (Emily Latimer/CBC)

MacSween said it was a way to continue to offer work to artists and programming to audiences near and far while adhering to public health guidelines related to gathering limits and travel.

"What we heard from people was how just overjoyed they were that we were able to do even what limited activities we did," he said.

MacSween expects Celtic Colours will again be offering virtual shows this year, but he's also hopeful that some kind of in-person activities can happen, too.

That's also the goal at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro. After moving everything online last year, general manager Alexandra Robin said plans are in place to take advantage of the size of the space.

"We're planning to do a socially distanced season," she said. "We're planning a full season with, ideally, somewhat typical revenue."

While she concedes being nervous about what the third wave will mean for the upcoming season, Robin said feedback from the community has been supportive for both online and physically distanced events.

'Really frustrating and very difficult'

Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo executive director Scott Long said they considered earlier this year doing some kind of hybrid event for 2021, but gathering limits make it virtually impossible to assemble the crew necessary to record performances, and that's even before artists would be assembled to rehearse and then film.

Instead, this year's offering will be a virtual event, more akin to a variety show than what people would see during a normal year at the Tattoo, said Long. It's all made for a lot of uncertainty.

"Trying to plan and then calling plans off and repeat," he said. "It's just been really frustrating and very difficult."

Not being able to go ahead with last year's performances meant a loss of about $2 million in revenue related to ticket sales, sponsorships and other avenues for the Tattoo.

A daunting year for artists

Along with the challenges their events have faced, Long and MacSween also worry about how artists and technical crew have fared in the last year and what it might mean for them to go through another season with reduced or no work.

"It's been a daunting year for artists in our world and any artists, really," said MacSween. "The dearth of opportunities in 2020 and into 2021 has had a very negative impact on people's livelihoods."

Like a lot of artists, Dartmouth musician Ian Sherwood quickly shifted to alternative opportunities last year.

He was in the middle of touring Australia when the pandemic arrived and his remaining dates were cancelled. Upon returning home he, like many musicians, started doing online concerts.

Musician Ian Sherwood was on tour when COVID caused the cancellation of the rest of his gigs in 2020. Since then he's played online shows, done recording work and developed trade skills while waiting for the return of live music. (Submitted by Ian Sherwood)

He also became his own contractor and converted the basement of his house into a recording studio, complete with a separate outside entrance so he could do technical work for people looking to record without running afoul of public health rules.

Even before the pandemic hit, Sherwood said many people who make their living as artists learn early about the need to have additional skills, possibly side jobs, and be able to adapt on the fly.

"Our careers are a hustle and it doesn't matter if there's a pandemic or not — we've always had to hustle," he said. "And I think those who have had to hustle more are having an easier time right now."

Genevieve Steele, an actor to whom Sherwood is married, also found herself needing to pivot.

When Genevieve Steele's stage work for 2020 was cancelled, she relied on a side job at Dalhousie University and picked up some TV and voiceover work. (Submitted by Genevieve Steele)

She was in the midst of a production at Neptune last year that was shut down by COVID and a gig scheduled for last summer also had to be put off. Along the way she's had some side work at Dalhousie University and picked up some voiceover work and a spot on the TV show Diggstown.

"A TV gig in the middle of a pandemic is a crazy gift," she said. "It was four days on set, which is a lot."

Steele, like Sherwood, Rogerson and a variety of events organizations and festivals have tapped into government support when possible to help get through the year. Federal wage replacement programs have been a lifesaver for many, while the province has provided $2.1 million in one-time emergency funding to organizations, as well as about $900,000 to help enhance digital offerings.

Steele said people within her sector who are responsible for hiring have also done their best to share around work in an effort to look out for each other.

"I feel that, at the ground level, like among the workers in the field, there is a camaraderie of people trying to work together and find work for each other."

Thinking long-term support

Long, after witnessing the difficult circumstances COVID has created for his organization and many of the people he works with, finds himself thinking beyond the pandemic.

He expects funding challenges that will need to be addressed when emergency government support ends if revenues have not rebounded. Long said provincial officials must also give greater thought to how they value arts and culture if they want it to factor prominently in the tourism sector and as a way to generate economic growth.

"[The arts are] what's going to bring people back to this province when we open up again and I think it needs to be a big priority and it needs to be more based on not our immediate needs, but there needs to be a real long-term strategy that we haven't seen yet from the province."