The show must go on, or so the adage goes in the theatre world. But it’s been four months since France lifted a nationwide lockdown, and life has not got back to normal for people working in the cultural sector. With more lockdowns on the horizon in major cities across France, where the tally of coronavirus infections is on the rise, artists and performers are worried about what that means for their livelihoods and the future of the industry.
“We’re trying to plan ahead and create things, but we don’t even know what’s still going to be open,” says Mollie Keane, the co-founder of Mumbo Jumbo, a theatre company for young people. “It’s difficult for programmers to programme new shows, because everything is unclear right now.”
The Covid-19 pandemic hit France just as Keane's theatre company was on the cusp of a new professional phase and was becoming more well-known. Overnight, all of their performances and workshops with young people were cancelled.
“I remember sitting in my apartment with my boyfriend and listening to Macron on the radio, and suddenly realising: everything was cancelled and we weren’t going to be paid for it,” says Keane.
€22 million for the arts
The French government has repeatedly assured the cultural sector of its support: in March, as the lockdown brought the curtain down on festivals, plays and concerts all over the country, the government announced an emergency fund of €22 million for the cultural sector, €5 million of which went towards live performance.
French President Emmanuel Macron also announced that the country’s intermittent de spectacle regime would be extended to August 2021. The regime allows artists and performers to receive a monthly salary from the state, providing they meet the minimum requirement of 507 hours of work over a 12-month period.
The sector is also set to receive a €2 billion-sized slice of the pie as part of the nation’s recovery package, made public at the beginning of September.
“Macron stabbed us in the back”
For Hagop Demirdjian, a jazz musician based in Paris, it’s not enough. He’s only performed two concerts since February when in a typical year he says he would have done around 40 in the same period. He’s angry that the government closed dance halls and event venues and fears a repeat lockdown.
“Macron stabbed us in the back and then turned around and offered us a bandage,” he said. “They’ve done the absolute minimum: stopped artists from dying of hunger. But if they start to close restaurants, bars and concert halls again, then they’re going to have to keep paying us until 2022. I don’t know how they could do otherwise.”
Audiences reluctant to return
Theatres and concert halls were allowed to reopen in June as long as they respected social distancing rules and imposed strict hygiene measures, but many waited until the back-to-school period in September to do so.
France’s culture minister Roselyne Bachelot declared at a festivals' conference on Friday that “the safest place in France today isn’t at home – it’s in a theatre.” However, it seems that theatre-goers don’t agree: as the number of Covid-19 cases in the country escalates, audience numbers are still not back to pre-pandemic levels.
Le Point Virgule, a theatre in central Paris, is only allowed to sell a maximum of 70 seats for a 110-seat theatre.
“This isn’t sustainable in the long term,” says actor Astien Bosche, who performs in improv show Le Grand Showtime at Le Point Virgule. He says that for the first time ever, the cast is playing to only around 40 people every night. “In our show, there are only three actors on stage. But with more actors, you simply can’t perform at half-capacity. It’s not cost-effective. You have to pay the actors, the production team, all of the related costs of a theatre. That can only be done with full theatres.”
For many people working in the arts sector, the hardest part is not knowing what’s going to happen. The government is mulling a total lockdown of bars and restaurants from Monday in cities that could soon be declared ‘red zones’, such as Paris, Lyon and Lille. Live performers anticipate their industry could be targeted next.
“It’s hard to be hopeful,” sighs Keane. “The arts need people. If people can’t be there – not just to see the shows, but also people to work with, to collaborate with – then I don’t see how theatre and music can continue. Theatre is about the place, theatre is the feeling. If people can’t be there, how can you tell your stories?”