How arts workers are coping in the pandemic. : The Indicator from Planet Money Morgan Gould is a playwright who talked with us in April about the cancellation of her play. She describes what life has been like for people who work in the arts during the pandemic. | Support The Indicator here.
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The State Of The Arts

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The State Of The Arts

The State Of The Arts

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Hey, everyone. A quick note before we start the show - 2020 has been a really difficult year for everyone, and we so appreciate your support and listening to our show. If you do happen to have extra money and are inspired to donate to our show, you can go to donate.npr.org/indicator. We will use that money to continue to look at the economic effects of COVID-19 and talk with people all across the country about their experiences. Thank you so much, and happy holidays.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Morgan Gould is a playwright, and when we first spoke to Morgan back in the spring, it was not long after her new play had had its run at a festival canceled early because of COVID. And Morgan was worried back then that a whole generation of workers in the live performing arts would be lost to other fields.

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MORGAN GOULD: I mean, I can tell you personally as someone who did not grow up with money and doesn't have a safety net for my family and needs to earn a living that I think that that will happen for sure to artists on all ends of the spectrum, emerging and otherwise. And I think that that's going to be the true tragedy of this.

GARCIA: So today on the show, I called Morgan back just to see how she and others in the theater world have adapted to this new reality and to ask what their hopes and fears are for the future. That's coming up after a quick break.

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GARCIA: Morgan Gould, welcome back to the show.

GOULD: I'm shook. I can't believe...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

GOULD: ...How long it's been. It's so terrifying. Oh, my God. Wow - 2020, man.

GARCIA: Does it feel like the last time we spoke, you were in a different world?

GOULD: Yeah. Like, but what was weird is it was, like, but also the same world. Like, I feel like it's exactly the same, which is different because I think I thought it would be less time when we last spoke.

GARCIA: That the pandemic would be less time, yeah. And when we spoke the last time in April, your play "Nicole Clark Is Having A Baby" had just been prematurely canceled at the festival where it was showing. So do you just want to catch me up on, like, what you've been up to since then? What did you do professionally afterwards to try to respond, to rebound?

GOULD: I want to preface everything I say with I am so lucky. I'm so lucky because before "Nicole Clark," I had some TV stuff that I had already had in the works, so the plan was sort of always, like, when the production was over, I would turn things in and deadlines and have a paycheck and stuff. And that continued to happen. It was a lot harder to write than I thought during a global pandemic. But all through April, May, June and into July, I was, like, I had to write or I would run out of rent money (laughter). So...

GARCIA: Did you find that that was a common thing, that TV jobs were still available to people whereas for the performing arts - obviously, you know, you can't perform in front of a live audience. So I'd imagine that those jobs went away immediately, and people might have shifted into TV. That sounds like it would make sense.

GOULD: Yeah. I mean, I'm speaking just for writers. I think that, like, actors, designers, technicians - like, they had it so much harder. I think writers - a lot of writers are really lucky because you can still write virtually. The story for me with the performing arts is all the people who - there's no way to virtually direct a play, really. I mean, I guess you can direct a Zoom reading, but it's just, like, not the same.

And actors and - mostly, like, for me, it breaks my heart to think about, like, the 1099 workers, like the technicians at the theater and the people in production and the people whose jobs just, like, are not virtual, and there's nothing they can do. But I do think, like, there's certain people who just, like, didn't have jobs after March 13, and they're still not back. And I think we're going to lose a lot of them forever. And that feels, like, so painful because those are the people that really are, like, the lifeblood when you walk into a theater.

GARCIA: And I also have to imagine, Morgan, that a lot of these workers might really struggle to get back into theater after they've been knocked off that career path for this long a time. I mean, this is a competitive and maybe a scary industry to work in, it seems, even when the economy is doing awesome. And so it's kind of like they lost that trajectory for their careers in addition to losing their jobs and their livelihoods.

GOULD: Yeah. I mean, so many of my friends are losing their health care, which feels scary. I have a actor friend who became an Uber Eats, like, pizza delivery man. I have actor friends who - I have literally, like, seven actor friends who became life coaches. I have some who've become realtors. It's, like - it's funny to me, like, five of them became life coaches. But, I mean, it's really sad, actually, because anyone who's a working actor has spent their life building this career. And it's just, like, gone in a second. And when we come back in a year or whenever, if ever, it's like, their jobs were already hard to get. So it's just impossible to ask them to cling on, like, for an indefinite amount of time. Like, I just - I don't know what I would do if I was in their shoes. I really have so much compassion for that.

But, you know, I think it's already a scary - as you say, already a scary industry to be a part of. And so knowing that, like, any traction you had - it feels like a huge backslide. I feel that way. I feel like my play was happening. Well, once we come back, it's not like we're doing that again. Like, I don't have a - I never had a world premiere, and I may now never have it for that play. And I feel like most artists I know have that feeling of, like, I worked and worked and worked, and now I'm kind of starting from square one.

GARCIA: Yeah. And, Morgan, I've seen that some theater companies have also been producing shows explicitly for an online medium, an online audience. They've been experimenting with different ideas to try to get by that way until the pandemic is over. Have you seen any of those? And what do you think about that?

GOULD: I'm going to be so real with you. I support that so much. I support artists getting paid. I support people and writers and generative artists being able to make work. I personally emotionally cannot watch that.

GARCIA: It's too sad.

GOULD: It makes me sad.

GARCIA: Yeah.

GOULD: Yeah.

GARCIA: Because it reminds you...

GOULD: It's...

GARCIA: ...Of what you were doing before.

GOULD: It's just not what we do. Like, it's great, and this is not a judgment on anyone doing it. And honestly, it could be really good. I really haven't watched it. I mean that. I haven't watched a single minute because I just - like, I literally started to watch one once, and it was, like, oh, I can't. Like, it's like that scene in "Aladdin" where, like, the genie is like, you can't wish for people you love to come back to life because they'll come back exactly as they are, as this, like, monster or Frankenstein. And so for me, it's just, like, too painful because I feel like it's trying to recreate something we just can't have right now.

And I feel like the plus side of that - the optimist in me, is, like, well, good because sometimes - I'm a theater person. I get sick of it. I get, you know, pessimistic about our field. But I'm like, I miss it. And that's good. Like, maybe we need to miss it for a little while because I think it isn't that essential to most people's lives until you really think about it. You know what I mean? And so for me, it's been too painful to watch. But again, I think it's great if people have found a way to keep their audiences engaged and to keep their artistic minds going. I'm super-supportive of it. Just personally, it makes me too emotional (laughter). That's the truth, man.

GARCIA: Yeah. Well, the vaccines are here now, and I know it's going to take a long time to get everyone vaccinated. But, Morgan, given that we didn't know 2020 would be this bad before it started, do you let yourself hope that 2021 maybe will be better than even seems possible right now?

GOULD: Oh, wow. I mean, one of the nice things is I feel like hope has died within me. So that means the bar is, like, incredibly low.

GARCIA: Wait. That's one of the nice things?

(LAUGHTER)

GOULD: Yeah because I feel like the fact that, like, I have no hope left inside me means, like, anything even remotely good that happens...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

GOULD: ...I'm, like, oh, my God. Like, so, you know, honestly, it sounds cheesy, and it sounds cliche, but it's, like, because so much of this year has been about perspective. And, like, ultimately, I'm very lucky. I'm safe. No one I love got sick. No one I love died. Like, so many people can't say that. And so I feel like for me, I'm just like, if I can just continue that trend in 2021 - like, I'm employed; no one I love has died - I will feel like that's a victory. And, you know, that sounds dumb, but I really do feel that way (laughter), like, you know?

GARCIA: Morgan Gould, thanks so much.

GOULD: Thank you so much. It's so good to talk to you. It feels like it's, like, such a fun punctuation in these crazy times.

GARCIA: Morgan Gould is now a staff writer for the "League Of Their Own" reboot that's coming to Amazon next year. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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