UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Broadway is shut down - you know, the coronavirus. But the show must go on. And recently, there was a show, just outside in the middle of Times Square.
UNIDENTIFIED DIRECTOR: This first time round is very much a rehearsal - a rehearsal on camera.
HERSHIPS: It's 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The director is holding a bullhorn, he's trying to talk to everyone through his mask. And his cast is made up of about 100 singers, dancers, musicians, ushers, theater workers. They're all socially distanced, standing spread out on the pavement, surrounded by all the giant electronic lights, and ads and signs.
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Yeah. In other words, this is not your typical Broadway show.
UNIDENTIFIED DIRECTOR: This first time round is how we work out how this is going to work.
HERSHIPS: This really isn't a show. It's more like a demonstration. The performers here are going to sing. But they're also going to talk economics, like Jessie Hooker-Bailey and her husband Gilbert, who, by the way, are young and spunky.
JESSIE HOOKER-BAILEY: I'm 32.
GILBERT BAILEY: I'm 32 as well. I can't wait to be 33. That's the Jesus year, you know what I'm saying? And then when you're 35, it's your presidential year. So I'm getting close to the...
GARCIA: Jessie and Gilbert are both actors. They've been performing in big-name shows too - "Beetlejuice," "Book Of Mormon," "Waitress." And during normal times, the tickets to these shows can cost hundreds of dollars. And that's because a Broadway play has huge overhead. There's the cost of running a venue. There's insurance, administrative staff. And then, of course, you've got to pay the cast and crew. Plus, of course, these shows are popular. A lot of people are willing to pay that much money.
HERSHIPS: What is pay like for performers on Broadway?
BAILEY: To be honest, pay for performers on Broadway is just enough...
HOOKER-BAILEY: Yeah, especially to live here.
BAILEY: ...When you have the job.
BAILEY: COVID ended my show, you know, so it's a little like...
HOOKER-BAILEY: We're not making the money that people think. Like, people think Broadway, and they're like, oh, they're rich. And that's not the case at all; paycheck to paycheck, yeah.
BAILEY: Broadway is a paycheck-to-paycheck situation.
HOOKER-BAILEY: Yeah, people don't know that. People don't realize that.
BAILEY: Yeah, we're very blue collar.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARCIA: I'm Cardiff Garcia. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. And today we are featuring a story brought to us by...
HERSHIPS: Sally Herships - hi.
GARCIA: Hi, Sally. After the break, we're going to hear what kind of help the arts and culture community wants from the government and what their plans are for getting that help.
HERSHIPS: And also, a song.
GARCIA: Not performed by you and me, I take it.
HERSHIPS: No. God, no (laughter).
HERSHIPS: The Department of Commerce says economic activity generated by the arts and culture industry - which is everything from dance troupes, to theaters, to zoos and museums - it represents this enormous number. It is 4.5% of GDP. And the folks here today say because of the hit from COVID, their industry - it needs more bailout money from the government.
CARSON ELROD: Sixty-eight percent of tourism is cultural.
GARCIA: That's Carson Elrod. He's a co-founder and organizer of Be an Arts Hero, which is the group that's helped organize today's event.
ELROD: If we go down - if the stars that are the arts institutions in this country are allowed to implode, they will turn into black holes that will take down restaurants, that will take down hotels and transportation.
GARCIA: This is quite a metaphor. But actually, it makes sense. If you think about all the jobs that are adjacent, that are attached to the arts and culture industry, there are people who work in hotels, in restaurants, in transportation, taxi drivers. And it means that if the arts and culture industry goes down, a lot of other jobs that are tethered to it might also disappear because when theaters are not shuttered and when galleries are not closed because of this global viral pandemic, the arts and culture industry generates a ton of money - $877 billion worth of economic activity. Those are numbers, by the way, from 2017. And the industry represents over 5 million jobs. That is one of the big points made by the performers here this morning and the one that they really want to emphasize.
HERSHIPS: So tell me who you are and what you're doing here today and why you're crying.
CELINA POLANCO: It's very emotional. I live really close. I live about seven blocks away. But I haven't been to Times Square in a long time. This is my community.
HERSHIPS: Celina Polanco is 44. She's an actress and an usher in theaters here in New York, and she is really struggling. But she wants people to know that, A, she wants the federal government to increase its financial help for the arts industry, and, B, this is not just about her.
POLANCO: We are a huge part of the economy, and we're just asking for the same help that other industries have gotten.
GARCIA: For example, Celina might point to the airline industry, which got more than $50 billion in various kinds of aid from the federal government. And the arts and culture industry is, itself, asking for about $44 billion, and it is proposing a piece of legislation to go along with that request. That legislation is called the DAWN Act. DAWN stands for Defend Arts Workers Now. The money would get divvied up between different organizations, like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Small Business Administration, groups like that. And they, in turn, would make grants directly to artists, employees, recording venues, cultural spaces and so on.
HERSHIPS: And, of course, there was the PPP program, which did help a ton of small businesses, but not everyone qualified. And think about it for a second. Arts and culture organizations are especially vulnerable to the pandemic. A lot of art stuff requires us to go sit, packed inside a theater shoulder-to-shoulder with a whole bunch of people not in our pods, which is normally very nice, just not during a pandemic. And in the meantime, what is a museum going to do? It's not going to move all of its artwork outside.
GARCIA: So the organizers of today's event say that if we want historic sites and the ballet and the movie theaters all to still be around when we come back, this money would help us hold on to the skilled workers in the infrastructure that we already have. It would help keep the industry afloat. And I'm not just saying this because I'm waiting for the new seasons of "Last Kingdom" to show up on Netflix once the pandemic is over. This is also about the larger impact on the economy that the arts and culture industry has.
HERSHIPS: Right. You talked about earlier what happens when an arts institution closes. Let's just take a specific example. Cardiff, say you were going to take your aunt to see an opera in St. Louis, right? There was the hotel you mentioned, maybe a plane ticket if you had to fly in. Maybe you would go out for lunch first at a restaurant.
GARCIA: Yeah, and we can't forget about all the jobs in the theater itself - the singers, the members of the orchestra, the lighting crew, stage manager, props people, wig makers, makeup artists, costumes, dry cleaning. And don't forget about arguably my favorite part, Sally - the people who make and sell the swag - like getting a T-shirt or a mug of whatever show you want to see.
HERSHIPS: I have those mugs.
GARCIA: I know you do.
HERSHIPS: (Laughter) One of the things that struck me was that all of the performers who were at Times Square this morning - they are standing in the middle of this iconic New York City space, and there are even tourists here at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning taking selfies. And they're surrounded by all the lights and signs and ads of Times Square, which is famous because of the arts. The theater lights are dark on Broadway. Do we think the advertising lights on all these big signs are going to go dark, too?
GARCIA: I don't know. But sadly, if they did, I'd worry that the arts industry, if it keeps suffering the way it's suffering now, would also end up sort of spreading that suffering around to all the other industries that are tied to it. And also, let's just not forget that it means there's going to be less joy available in the world when the pandemic is over because one of the reasons that the arts industry is so big and powerful and profitable the way it is is because we all like to be entertained by it. It's a part of our lives. It's something that we enjoy. It's something that we enjoy with other people and that we then discuss later with other people. We even brag about it with other people. And so it would just kind of break that connection in all kinds of ways.
HERSHIPS: So the folks promoting the DAWN Act - this is one of the reasons they're pushing so hard. And they say so far, they have met with over 60 Senate offices and a dozen offices in the House. And as for Jessie and her husband Gilbert, the married couple that are both actors - they say they have enough savings to make it through January. They've both been doing a lot of teaching online, but everything is up in the air. I kind of want to feel better now, so I think it's time for a song.
HERSHIPS: Here is the one that Jessie and Gilbert helped to perform outside in Times Square.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Will I wake tomorrow?
BAILEY: (Singing) Will I wake tomorrow?
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods, and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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