Hayley Ricketson, whose show was due to start this month has inevitably been cancelled because of Coronavirus. She writes for us about the support she has had, what her native Australia is doing differently and the importance of empathy.

It was about 10:30pm on Friday 13 March and I was just getting on a tram home after seeing a friend’s theatre show.

I was in Melbourne, reading a message from the director of my play Graceful, due to run at London’s Hope Theatre in April. The Coronavirus pandemic had already started to overwhelm theatreland and like many others, I was waiting for the inevitable. In two days’ time, I was due to return to my beloved London to start a production that’s been five years in the making but in the most ominous fashion, it was clear that the financial risk in going ahead – when cancellation of the performances seemed a likelihood – was just too great.

As well as making this very difficult decision with Courtney, the Director and Nora, the Casting Director, on a very long tram journey home, I emailed Kennedy Bloomer at the Hope outlining our situation – she is the artistic director of the theatre who incidentally has been incredibly supportive, professional and cooperative throughout this entire process. Hats off to the Hope and dear Kennedy.

You only have to quickly scroll through twitter – or whichever social media is your poison – to know that Graceful is just a drop in the ocean of cancelled and postponed performing arts events. To be fair, we were one of the luckier ones – our rehearsal period hadn’t started, we hadn’t spent too much money yet and our theatre has committed to mounting Graceful later in the year. Yes, we were lucky but there is now a talented and wonderful cast of women who had about six weeks of work lined up that has been postponed. Likewise, there is a crew without a project, and not to mention a director who had put a huge amount of time, effort and love into this project already.

There’s no way to compare all the different losses and no reason to, but as I see the posts and emails pop up of all the inevitable festival cancellations, theatre closures and unemployed artists, my heart starts to sink more and more. This is in part due to a legitimate concern that the arts will not receive the financial support they need to get through this pandemic. It’s a pessimism borne not just from the undervaluing of the sector, but also because this virus clearly does not discriminate when it comes to industry.

Part of what frightens me with this pandemic is that so much assistance is needed across so many sectors for an undetermined period of time. We’re in an unprecedented situation where the scale of the response needed is only getting bigger. This is made scarier by the fact that in many major Western countries (United Kingdom, U.S.A and Australia), the political leadership is a winning combination of conservative governments led by authoritarian strongmen who range from arrogant bully to a dangerously incompetent buffoon. Doesn’t inspire much hope.

It is worth remembering that the arts as a sector is financially valuable – according to the 2019 report for Arts Council England of ‘Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy’ and we shouldn’t lose sight of this… we’re very much part of the social and economic fabric of society, even if we feel people don’t always see it.

Here in Australia, the Government has announced measures to support both artistic/cultural institutions as well as casual workers/sole traders who’ve lost work. While it is welcome, Chief Executive of Live Performance Australia, Evelyn Richardson has warned it won’t be enough to save some institutions who’ve lost the entirety of their revenue and will go under if they don’t receive an immediate bailout. So yes, financially it’s scary and we should not stop fighting for the arts – a lot of other jobs will suffer if the arts suffer.

The other thing that scares me – as it would for many workers in many industries – is the existential threat to my livelihood. It’s the gaping hole in the coming months that I have no idea how to fill. Artists (whether writer, actor, musician or otherwise) inevitably must always be looking to the next project, the next person to talk to, the next theatre show to see; our survival depends on dynamic multi-tasking, a strange mental agility and of course, workplace flexibility to place ourselves in front of every opportunity whilst not relying on it financially.

Sound weird? It is. It really is. Do we wish it were different? All the time.

With months of closed theatres, uncertainty and no hospitality work to fall back on ahead of us, I’m personally feeling at a loss as to what to do with myself. I know workers from other industries feel similarly – small business owners, client-facing professions, flight attendants, for instance: what will they do?

I don’t hold the arts above any of these examples, I only speak from the point of view of a playwright who realises the amount of effort, time and sheer relentlessness it takes to get one little play on a stage and, like so many artists, I’m exhausted. It is a profoundly disconcerting time and even though we’re all considerably experienced in managing unstable or varying workloads, this is the equivalent of trying to balance on a seesaw to being locked out of the playground.

Something that I’m reminding myself and want to remind others is our advantage in this situation, which is that we’re creative. We’re (generally) generous and empathetic. We have an ability and drive to recognise our common humanity and connect with others. This is a ‘soft’ skillset that is absolutely vital in such trying, unpredictable and isolating times. You only have to see another video of Italians playing music on their balconies for a smile to spread across your face, as you’re reminded – excuse the cheesiness – we’re all in this together.

I don’t want to sit around and wallow. Being a writer, I am lucky that with the right frame of mind and if I get my shit together, I could write play upon play, poem upon poem, the great Australian novel and more with all this extra time. It’s also true that it’s hard to muster creative energy when financial stress is high, I’m definitely feeling that, but I believe imagination and empathy are needed in spades right now, so though it may not pay well, remember your worth and what it can do for someone swept up in the anxiety and panic.  This is already happening – online concerts, festivals and even dance classes abound and it’s great.

There isn’t a perfect answer or way out of this. This is one playwright’s story and perspective, trying to make sense of something as it’s unfolding in front of her. So, I guess I just encourage you to tell your story and importantly, listen to others. Demonstrate the power of the ‘soft’ skillset, so when the world begins to right itself, we’ll be as energised as ever to fight for this industry and make sure no one forgets the invaluable potential within it.