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Musicians, performers devastated by coronavirus: ‘This is catastrophic’

From singers to actors to comedians, the performing arts world is reeling from its unexpected shutdown.

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The band After the Burial had just played a concert in Aarau, Switzerland, when singer Anthony Notarmaso got a text: President Donald Trump had announced a ban on travel from Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was like, ‘Dude, we’ve got to go home,’" said Notarmaso, who lives in St. Petersburg. “I was freaking out, honestly. The first thing I thought was, Man, I’m going to get stuck out here.”

Within hours, the metalcore band scrapped their nine remaining European shows and scrambled to get home to America — at which point a new reality began to set in.

Tours: canceled. Festivals: canceled. Most income for the foreseeable future: canceled.

“I’ve been in a touring band for 11 years now," Notarmaso said. "This is what I do for money. I have a lot of friends in this industry, and my Facebook and Instagram is like: Tour’s canceled. Tour’s canceled. Tour’s canceled. Tour’s canceled. All these guys, they’re panicking, and it’s understandable. This is crazy.”

Notarmaso is one of countless musicians and performers whose livelihoods have been wrecked due to the coronavirus. Bars and venues have shut down. Mass gatherings have been suspended. It’s a terrifying change for those who work in the arts, as there’s no clear timetable for when — or if — life as they knew it might return.

“We struggle already with feeling a sense of self-worth in what we do,” said Tampa singer-songwriter Eden Shireen, who lost six shows and $2,000 in March alone. “And then when the world shuts down and we’re out of a job, when we’re already struggling to begin with, it can feel even more like: How and why am I doing this?

Add to that a new, suddenly pressing question: How will any of them go on?

More than 50 shows in March, April and May had been postponed or canceled at Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre and other venues it works with due to the coronavirus pandemic. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

LIVE MUSIC: DREAD AND PANIC

Billy Mays III had just played a gig in Asheville, N.C., when the news started looking bleak. The St. Petersburg experimental artist decided to scrap the remaining 10 or so dates on his tour and drive home. On the way, he called those venues to let him know he was canceling — only to find most had already canceled on him.

“March and April are done for shows, at least,” said Mays, who said about 80 percent of his livelihood comes from touring. “I’m probably going to lose about $3,000 to $4,000 worth of income.”

The impact the coronavirus will have on the lives of touring musicians is hard to comprehend, said Fran Snyder, founder of the St. Petersburg-based Listening Room Network, which connects musicians with homeowners who want to host house concerts. Their annual Listening Room Festival, which had been planned for this weekend, has been pushed to November.

“If you’re an independent act without a label, keeping you on the road, these house concerts are the only way you can make a living wage,” Snyder said. “So this is catastrophic for them. These are gigs where they make anywhere from $500 to $1,500 on average, and they’re having entire tours canceled.”

It’s hitting musicians in indirect ways, too. Susie Ulrey leads the Tampa indie group Pohgoh; her husband Keith is a drummer and promoter who runs Microgroove and New Granada Records. Last week, Ulrey was laid off from her job with a recruiting firm whose primary client is Marriott. She has multiple sclerosis, making health insurance an immediate priority and throwing the finances of a family at the center of Tampa’s music scene into chaos.

“We actually need to sit down tonight and do the rundown of our finances and figure out how long we’ll be okay for,” she said.

Musicians have stepped up to help one another, but that can only last so long, said St. Petersburg singer-songwriter Mark Etherington, who has started live-streaming performances since his gigs dried up.

“Everyone’s getting hit by it,” he said. “I hope people have money to donate, but everybody’s kind of in a tight pinch right now."

More established artists and venues may be more protected, but not entirely. At Ruth Eckerd Hall, which has postponed or canceled more than 50 concerts at different venues, more than 200 part-time event workers will lose income. But veteran acts looking to reschedule tours will also face unexpected hurdles.

“As all these dates move to the fall, one of the big questions that’s going to come up is buses and trucks,” said Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s executive vice president for entertainment. “If you don’t have your stuff reserved already for a fall tour, these bus companies and trucking companies may not be able to handle the load that could come from this.”

Notarmaso’s situation with After the Burial is typical of a huge swath of artists that tour for months out of the year, playing clubs and various festivals.

Notarmaso and his wife run a dental lab on the side (although business there has also been cut in half). He has no health insurance. But he has many friends in the music world who are in much worse shape.

“The first thing people think about is, ‘Hey, am I going to get my money back for this show?’” he said. "That’s understandable. But people aren’t thinking about the crew, the hospitality, the promoters, the techs, the drivers. Our bus driver, he’s probably 55 years old, and he was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have any family to lean on, and I have kids and a wife. All my tours are canceled.’

“You could just see it on his face: What’s going to happen?

St. Petersburg singer Anthony Notarmaso, third from left, and After the Burial cut short a European tour due to the coronavirus pandemic. [ Sumerian Records ]

ON STAGE: PERFORMERS WAIT ANXIOUSLY

David Jenkins was standing in the wings of the WFTS-Ch. 10 studios in Tampa, waiting to go on the show Morning Blend. The artistic director of Jobsite Theater was there to promote the play Doubt: A Parable, when he got a text message from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, where the theater company performs, that said it was canceling all events through April 19.

Not being able to perform that show cost the company $25,000, because they pay the independent contractors that comprise the cast and crew before the show opens. Each show is an eight-week contract with its own budget, so there is no way to make up another show.

“Once this has blown over, be that in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, we intend on proceeding with the show,” Jenkins said. “I’ve talked to all of the artists, they’re all clear. Obviously they’re not getting any other work right now.”

That would mean canceling another scheduled show. But Jenkins said he’s seeing other local theaters cancel entire seasons.

David M. Jenkins and Roxanne Fay starred in Jobsite Theater's production of "Doubt: A Parable," which was scheduled to open on March 13. [ Courtesy of Jobsite Theater ]

The fragile finances of the theater world mean some companies will be in dire financial straits.

Last week, the state approved a $93.2 million 2020-21 budget that included $22.48 million in arts funding, a modest increase from 2019-20. With that budget all but certain to get overhauled in the wake of COVID-19, that funding looks far from secure.

“We really want to assess the overall impact as the situation continues to evolve,” said Stephanie Gularte, artistic director of American Stage, which has postponed its American Stage in the Park production of Footloose — as well as its largest annual fundraiser, the opening-night Gala Under the Stars — until October.

With no shows or auditions happening, actors are in limbo. Those who belong to the Actors’ Equity Association, like St. Petersburg native Becca McCoy, may still have health insurance and a pension, at least for a while. Those who do not are in far worse shape.

“We’re all in a tremendously scary holding pattern,” McCoy said. “If we don’t qualify for unemployment, then we’re living off savings or looking for some kind of a part-time job in a market where that’s not a readily available fallback.”

Music director and pianist Jeremy Douglass took a triple hit when three events he was in — Shout! The Mod Musical at the Straz; Footloose at American Stage in the Park; and the Florida Bjorkestra’s Buffyfest at the Palladium — were canceled.

He estimates he’s losing about $20,000 in the next few months, and doesn’t know how performing artists will be able to make any money.

“Obviously there won’t be live performances for a while," he said. “But I think we’re going to see a lot of beautiful stuff being created now that everybody is sitting around with a lot of fear and anxiety. And that’s going to create some beautiful stories for all of us to identify with.”

Becca McCoy, at right, has performed in many local theater productions, including 2017's "Flying" at Tampa Repertory Theatre.

Some comedians plan to spend the next few weeks hunkering down and writing, said Tampa comic Matt Fernandez. But that’s not the same as performing, as standups rely on audiences to hone material.

“When they closed all the bars for 30 days, it was basically them saying, ‘We’re stopping comedy for the next 30 days,’” he said.

One silver lining: Comics with streaming specials may see an uptick as more people are confined to their couches. A few people have already told Fernandez they’ve checked out his Amazon Prime special while self-isolating.

“It took the end of the world for them to watch my special," he said, "but I still appreciate it.”

As dark as things seem right now, the upside is it’s hard to stop creative types from creating, said Helen Hansen French.

French co-founded Beacon Contemporary Dance, a platform for dancers and multidisciplinary performing artists whose annual April showcase at the Palladium — budgeted at $15,000 and featuring 35 performers — was postponed.

“Depending on how the economy turns, it seems like arts are the most expendable, and they tend to be the first to go,” she said. "It’s going to be, potentially, a morale blow. But at the same time, I’ve seen such resilience among the St. Pete and Tampa Bay area dance community to try and turn lemons into lemonade, if you will, where we tend to bounce back and be super creative.

“There’s such a resiliency," she added. "You couldn’t stop a dancer from dancing if you tried.”

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