Philip Hancock is a Professor of Work and Organisation and Head of the Organisation Studies and Human Resource Management Group, at Essex Business School. Melissa Tyler is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Essex Business School. In this blog, they explore the impact of COVID-19 on the performing arts sector and the significance of occupational identity in understanding the personal and professional contexts and consequences of change.

For many working in the performing arts – especially performers themselves – their identity is often entwined closely with the thrill and sense of connection that comes from working with, and in front of, a live audience.

COVID-19, however, has changed this. With venues closed and live performance largely prohibited (1), many performers around the UK find themselves in an ever more precarious position. Often self-employed or freelance, and perhaps juggling the work they love with other jobs that have also disappeared, they face both financial and personal hardship (2).

Certainly, the financial pressures are severe. Our British Academy funded research suggests that 98% of self-employed and freelance performers are now unable to perform in front of a live audience, and that for 76% of such performers lost gigs would have provided the majority of their earned income. At the same time, while around 67% have applied for financial support, only around 40% have been successful in accessing relevant schemes.

But the financial impact is only half the story. For many performers, it is losing physical proximity to an audience, and the sense of identity and meaning that comes with it, that is most damaging. As one performer puts it, my act is ‘who I am’. For some, this loss is due to not having access to the ‘energy and shared atmosphere’, or ‘connection’ that accompanies live performance. For others it is even more visceral. The inability to look a fellow performer ‘in the eye’, or ‘feel the audience’, leading to what is variously described as anxiety, low self-esteem and even a ‘pit of despair’.

What our research also highlights, however, is how many performers are reasserting, through an online environment, not only their right to make a living but also the viability of their identities as performers (3). Ranging from live-streamed plays to virtual singalongs and couch-cabarets, a range of opportunities are being crafted in order to allow performers to reconnect with their audiences online.

While far from a perfect substitute for the attractions and affirmations of being in the same room, performers are even speaking about how these new ways of performing are providing fresh opportunities to be physically and affectively engaged with their audiences.

For some, the altered sense of proximity created by online media is encouraging them to develop more ‘intimate’ styles of presentation using ‘voice’, ‘facial expressions’, and foster a sense of ‘connection with viewers’. Others are taking advantage of the opportunity to extend their ‘reach’ by nurturing global fan bases based on dialogue and, once again, connection.

How long this will remain a sustainable alternative to live performance is hard to say, of course. Above all else, the hope is for a reopening of venues and for live performers to be, once again, just that. Nonetheless, until then, the current situation remains an important reminder of the significance of occupational identity to understanding the personal and professional contexts and consequences of change.

The above is based on preliminary research funded by the British Academy Small Research Grants Scheme – Award SRG20\201393

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