Houston has been in tumult, following the ever-evolving news about the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Schools shuttered, employees were asked to work at home, attendance slowing to a trickle at Bayou City restaurants. And the latest news: the state of disaster in Houston is indefinite.
This week also saw a slew of other cancellations: arts groups all over Houston have put shows on hold, rescheduled them or cancelled them outright, among them Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, Main Street Theater, the Ensemble Theatre, Stages, and more.
Local theater company, 4th Wall Theatre Company, suspended its current production of Between Riverside and Crazy, which was garnering great reviews. It was also suspended its next performance, Pavilion, scheduled to open on May 15, following the announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that communities scrap gatherings of more than 50 people.
But that closing announcement came with a ray of light at the end of the dark arts tunnel; 4th Wall was committed to paying its actors, designers, and technicians as if the shows had run as usual.
"Part of our mission has always been to pay actors and designers fairly," says 4th Wall co-founder and co-artistic director Kim Tobin-Lehl. "And this is absolutely the right thing to do. It's not our artists' fault that their work was interrupted because of a catastrophe."
Further, the Houston Arts Alliance shared news today that the U.S Department of Labor has announced new guidance outlining flexibilities that states have in administering their unemployment insurance programs to assist those affected by the current outbreak of COVID-19.
While unemployment insurance has always been available to people who work for a company, it is generally not available for contractors, which many actors, designers, and technicians are. The new guidelines mean that artists and performers affected by the outbreak may be eligible for what's called Disaster Unemployment Assitance (DUA), which provides unemployment benefits for individuals as a direct result of COVID-19.
“I hope that is truly the case," says Rebecca Green Udden, the founding artistic director of Main Street Theater, about the legislation. "I am in despair thinking of all the work we are not going to be able to give people.”
To help artists navigate through the maze of unemployment, the Houston Arts Alliance set up a support desk. Those affected can send in questions, all of which HAA promises will be answered within three days.
"It's great that the Houston Arts Alliance is spreading the word about disaster unemployment assistance that artists might be eligible for and has set up a support desk," says Shayna Schlosberg, Catastrophic Theatre's managing director. "These are necessary first steps. However, artists need relief as soon as possible and given the unprecedented situation we are in, it's hard to know how quickly federal funds will be administered. Other funders in our city need to intervene to make emergency funds more immediately available."
"People think we do this [work] for love or that it's just a passion, and that's a sad perspective. Of course we love what we do, and the work we create is so heartfelt and generous, it's difficult sometimes for people to remember that people really do make their living from the arts," says Tobin-Lehl, who supports the new bill. "This is good news for artists."
And for Houston performing arts lovers who are wondering how best to support these organizations, consider a gift to them. Many arts companies rely heavily on ticket sales as a huge portion of their operating budget. Without those, they're forced to draw from their own reserves, or cash that was earmarked for something else.