Here’s How Performing Artists Stay Afloat Six Months into the Pandemic

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Circus artist Nina Sawant performs at the virtual show Vespertine Circus. Since the pandemic, directing and editing skills have become crucial for her to sustain her work.  (Courtesy of Nina Sawant)

Before the pandemic, Nina Sawant made a living hanging from hoops, contorting into improbable shapes and shimmering in sequins under neon lights.

Now, the Oakland circus artist and aerialist has had her work dramatically reduced to a few sporadic online shows. With the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders dragging into their seventh month, Sawant and theater, circus, dance and other performing artists are finding themselves trying to adapt their career plans as their industry lingers in an indefinite hiatus.

“There’s a hope that there will be a sort of a renaissance and people will be hungry to see theater shows and support the arts,” she says, “but I and all the people I know are taking it day by day and building up our additional skill sets so that, if the time comes, we have something to turn to if we’re not able to make a living anymore doing the things we’ve built our lives around.”

Last week, San Francisco moved to allow entertainment in outdoor dining areas and other city-designated Shared Spaces, but it’s unclear how advantageous the program will be for the theater industry. And for Sawant, the transition back to a booming circus arts business is a lot more complicated than shows reopening. In addition to theater performances, her more lucrative gigs at private parties for tech companies such as Apple and Google are also indefinitely on hold.

An aerialist hangs from silk while pouring champagne.
Before COVID-19, Nina Sawant made a large portion of her income performing at private parties for large tech companies. (Courtesy of Nina Sawant)

Even though some tech giants are doing well during the pandemic, their company culture is changing. Twitter is subleasing some of its Market Street office space; Google and Facebook told employees they’ll be working from home long term. Sawant wonders how long it’ll be before companies require their workers to show up in the same physical location, let alone budget for a huge party.

“We really at this point don’t know how long it’ll take for things to come back and what it’s going to look like when they do,” she says.

Careers in the performing arts have always been precarious. But the pandemic and its attendant uncertainty are teaching many artists valuable lessons in diversifying their skills in order to weather the storm. Sawant started two Patreon accounts: one where she gives business and career advice to circus artists, and another where fans can watch her perform. And she’s discovered a new passion for film directing and video editing. For Vespertine Circus, a Bay Area troupe that produces online shows, she edits music video-like clips of circus acts that are later played at ticketed livestreams.


“None of it is on Zoom, so it doesn’t feel like you’re on a terrible work call,” she says of Vespertine’s online shows, adding that its online platform also allows viewers to socialize. “And the production value is a lot higher.”

While some artists find success in embracing technology, others are focusing on more behind-the-scenes aspects of their craft. That’s the case for Akaina Ghosh, a stage actor who has had a few virtual performances during the pandemic but has mostly turned their focus towards writing and teaching.

“My biggest challenge has been sitting with the reality that my career is postponed indefinitely,” says Ghosh, who was in rehearsal for a play at the Cutting Ball Theater when theaters closed down. “It’s hard to feel creative when my profession may not come back full-swing for a year or two.”

While some artists have received unemployment or emergency COVID-19 relief grants, Ghosh has been living off savings and freelance gigs. Those have including conducting interviews with other theater professionals for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s website and working as a teacher assistant for a sketch comedy writing course from Killing My Lobster. Though these jobs have generated some income, Ghosh still yearns for a steadier paycheck and has looked into other fields such as broadcasting. They say their peers are doing the same.

“I have friends that are voice teachers, or acting teachers, or things like that,” the artist adds. “But ultimately, we’re seeing this dip in the theater industry that is for the foreseeable future, and they want to get out while they still can.”

Ultimately, Ghosh worries that the pandemic will make theater even less accessible to artists of color, especially ones in the emerging stages of their career. “This will make theater older and whiter,” Ghosh says. “People with less stability and less privilege will not be able to wait 12, 24 months for work to come back. And I think it’ll have a majorly negative impact on who will be able to stay in this industry.”

A stage actor puts on a crown under dramatic lighting.
Akaina Ghosh in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s production of Shakespeare’s ’The Winter’s Tale.’ (Serena Morelli)

Despite the current financial losses, some professionals who’ve been in theater for decades are cautiously optimistic about artists’ ability to weather the storm. When California’s shelter-in-place orders began six months ago, longtime artist manager Nola Mariano contacted her clients and told them to come up with contingency plans for the next two years. Some of her younger clients moved in with family to save money, and others came up with diversified career plans that don’t completely rely on performance.

“My thinking on that had to do with not only the pandemic itself, but the effect the pandemic was going to have on the economy and usual audience that goes to these events,” Mariano says.

Despite the uncertainty, Mariano takes a glass-half-full view of how theater will adapt. She points to actor, director and playwright Kristina Wong, who turned a canceled tour of her one-woman show, Kristina Wong for Public Office, into a “touring” virtual, interactive performance from her living room. Various venues and universities have hosted the show virtually as a ticketed livestream, with the next edition coming to UC San Diego’s platform on Oct. 14. And similarly, the Berkeley Repertory Theater presented Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Siguenza’s political satire, Culture Clash (Still) in America, as a two-week streaming event on the platform BroadwayHD.

It’s a hard time for theater right now. But then again, when hasn’t it been? As Mariano puts it, “It’s a bumpy ride we’re all on, but it seems like we’ll come out on the other side as community.”