Ghost lights and Instagram likes: How and why to save the arts
It’s said every theatre is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theatre’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes?
In late May, superstar ballerina Maria Kochetkova posted a ghostly photo of the Berliner Ensemble theatre on her Instagram: An aerial shot of what was supposed to be the audience’s thicket of red velvet seats was now an otherworldly scene of deforestation. Every third or fourth seat had been unbolted and ripped from the ground, leaving socially distant pods of one and two-seat arrangements scattered across the floor. The photo was originally posted on the Berliner’s Instagram account with a caption that translated to “the new normal,” but Kochetkova’s thoughts proved more striking: “Why are the theaters forced to do this,” she wrote, “and not the airlines?”
The controversy began immediately: Some praised Kochetkova for making a political statement, others accused her of advocating for the violation of health codes. In reality, her question fell into neither category and the curiosity was well-founded. Like in theatres, airplane passengers sit in seats next to each other, wrestling over elbow room and breathing each other’s exhales. While the similarities may end there, it’s an experience with substantial physical crossover, much of which bodes poorly for the prevention of virus transmission. In response to the looming pandemic, most airlines limited their seating capacities, and most theatres faced complete shutdowns. This disparity was borne less out of malice and more out of our evaluation of what is and is not essential during a health crisis. At the crest of COVID-19’s wave, these questions about essentialness are fairly easy to assess: No one needs a night at the ballet, though some may still need to fly. As we attempt to surf the wave’s crash, however, these evaluations of essentialness ripple and foam in a long series of complications. Kochetkova’s question may have appeared oversimplified because she posted it while we were at the undulation’s crest — I’d argue she was actually trying to ride the wave all the way to shore.
The Arts and Culture sector of the United States employs more than five million people and adds $877 billion to the economy every year. Wrapped up in this are the millions of dancers, performing artists and backstage workers that continue to live without paychecks. The Transportation and Warehousing sector adds only $612 billion. Wrapped up in this are the airline crews that continue to fly planes. Together, the two sectors make up half of the top four most profitable industries in America — on the eve of a global economic meltdown, it should seem obvious that our survival thus relies on the support of both groups.
Our government recognized only half of this argument: In March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allocated $50 billion in 11 major U.S. Airlines. The money allowed planes to continue facilitating travel at socially-distanced seating capacities. Broadly, it allowed the Transportation and Warehousing sector to continue serving our economy. The same legislation allocated only $75 million (not billion) to the thousands of arts organizations in need. In June, New York City Ballet canceled “The Nutcracker” because it was not financially feasible for them to stage a production at socially-distanced seating capacity. Broadly, they do not have the support to continue serving our economy. Come December, there will be no audiences buying tickets. No families will splurge on merchandise and no couples will buy food at nearby restaurants before the show. NYCB will lose millions — the city and country will lose even more.
In response to this danger, the Be An Arts Hero campaign began advocating for the U.S. Senate to pass Arts relief by August 1. Their website makes six main demands: extend unemployment through December, provide subsidies to arts workers for COBRA health insurance, dedicate stimulus packages that are proportional to the economic contributions of the Arts and Culture sector, distribute that relief as quickly as possible, extend paycheck protection to government nonprofits and update the tax deduction laws for creative professionals. The August deadline is not arbitrary — the last week of July marks the last week of federal unemployment checks provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a lifeline that has kept tens of millions of Americans alive for the past four months. As we surf into the end of summer, Congress appears depressingly confused about the danger of ending such support: Our country is not reopening; the places that have tried now face deadly new spikes of virus transmission. Artists — especially performing artists — are still out of work. So are retail workers, restaurant waiters and even many transportation employees. In many ways, the United States is no safer than we were in March. This is especially true for creative professionals, many of whom belong to companies who have already announced complete shutdowns until at least January. Ending federal support now is not only misguided, it adds fuel to an already blazing false narrative about this country’s ability to safely reopen.
BEAH’s guidelines, laid out across a powerful social media campaign, provide a framework for the recovery of our country’s artistic livelihood. This may seem like a phrase founded in nonessential terminology, but make no mistake — our finances rely on the survival of creative professionals. If we do not protect them now, they will not save us later.
Most importantly, the BEAH initiative emphasizes the intersectionality of their demands. Their message is clear: An industry of artistic professionals out of work adds to the looming eviction crisis and the severe explosion of Americans without health insurance, both of which disproportionately fall on BIPOC individuals. The continued lack of support is not hurting massive ballet companies at the same rate as minority-led dance troupes, it is “exacerbating pre-existing inequalities to a desperate and deadly limit.”
In March, the German government passed an $54 billion aid package targeted at Arts and Culture relief — roughly $53 billion more than the United States. It’s this legislation that allowed the Berliner to open at all. This month, American Airlines announced they would begin booking flights at full capacity. The news was announced as thousands of American ghost lights began their fifth month of uninterrupted burning. I don’t offer this comparison with the intention of suggesting it might be safe to return to American theatres, nor do I intend to imply that commercial air travel is not worth the aid it receives. Airplanes are essential — but the arts are too. If we wait much longer to realize this, it will be too late. One day, COVID-19 will be gone and the world will forever be changed. We will struggle to cope with mountainous grief and emotional confusion, much of which will be caused by a crippled global economy exacerbated by an Arts sector unable to provide its share. As the outrageous epicenter of this pandemic, America’s trauma will be unlike any other. Such damage will no doubt be worsened in a world without the inherent healing power of art.
As the August 1 deadline approaches, BEAH’s call to action remains: Call your senators, write your emails, save the arts.