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Comedy's coronavirus crisis: 'performers are in deep, deep trouble' | Stage

‘We will refocus some grant programmes to help compensate individual artists and freelancers for lost earnings.” It wasn’t much – but Arts Council England’s commitment last weekend to shelter independent artists from the storm of venue closures and cancelled events provided a morale boost to a beleaguered sector. Yet there remains a substantial number of independent artists for whom ACE takes no responsibility to support: comedians. “This crisis feels existentially threatening,” says Liam Williams. “Anybody who’s working purely as a live performer in comedy is in deep, deep trouble right now.”

When comics discuss the merits of their industry, they talk about its wild west character – how it’s unregulated, open to anyone and beholden to no one. But that doesn’t feel like a virtue in a crisis. What happens to comedy when social gathering is outlawed? When the Melbourne comedy festival announces its cancellation 10 days before opening night, and (unthinkably) the Edinburgh fringe looks in jeopardy, what is the future for artists, freelance stage crew and indie producers whose income is entirely dependent on ticket sales?

“Every single link in the chain of our industry is affected by this,” says the producer Bríd Kirby, who runs the production company Fight in the Dog with Williams. Their acts include 2019 Edinburgh comedy award-winner Jordan Brookes. “In the live sector, people’s careers – sound technicians, promoters, producers, journalists: all freelancers – can only survive so long as shows go ahead.”

Williams, who has branched out into TV with shows such as Pls Like and Ladhood, agrees: “When live comedy was my life this would have been absolutely ruinous. I don’t know how live performers are going to pay their rent.”

Comedians Liam Williams, Emma Sidi and Lolly Adefope in Pls Like

Comedians Liam Williams, Emma Sidi and Lolly Adefope in Pls Like

Both realise the problems are not unique to comedy, but that’s partly their point. “These days comedy and theatre blend so often,” says Williams, “it’s hard to know the difference. A lot of comedians go on to make huge contributions to other art forms. They’re writing novels, appearing in TV dramas, writing those dramas or writing films. They’re in West End plays and boosting ticket sales massively. Comedy gives so much to the other arts, but it’s still not considered an art form. So right now it’s being left to fend for itself” – without any institutional backing.

Comedy’s claim to be recognised as an art form is a vexed issue. Simon Munnery has a Venn diagram routine about it, based on his experience of being described as “the closest that comedy gets to art”. “Even if my show made that leap,” he jokes, “and was then categorised as art, what category would it be in? It would be in the category of Shit Art: art that is perilously near being comedy.”

The producer Hannah Martin led a campaign last autumn, in advance of ACE announcing its new 10-year strategy, for comedy to be brought into the fold. Kirby corresponded with ACE last week in light of the coronavirus outbreak, and was told: “Comedy is not one of our supported art forms and whilst we understand this to be frustrating, we are not in a position to change our policy on this.”

“It derives,” Williams speculates, “from an old-fashioned, 90s notion of comedy as being quite lowbrow, easy to stage and commercially resilient. And that’s clearly not the case.”

Tim Key.

Commercial pressures … Tim Key. Photograph: Justin Williams/Rex Features

Witness production houses such as the now-defunct Invisible Dot, Fight in the Dog and Berk’s Nest, which specialise in highly creative comedy and whose artists (such as Tim Key, Richard Gadd, Williams himself) benefit from careful husbandry away from market pressures. Just as in other art forms, a distinction is recognised (and a continuum acknowledged) between “subsidised” and “commercial”, so too in comedy there is a subsection of the industry that isn’t as “lowbrow and commercially resilient” as comedy is often assumed to be.

At any rate, says Kirby, “this has to be a time in which, even if only for this period, the policy gets changed”. In the meantime, she is teaming up with fellow producers to launch an online donations platform, to help comics and backstage freelancers through this devastating period. She is reaching out to the organisations that make the Edinburgh fringe happen, asking: how can measures be put in place to insulate comedians, producers and freelancers against the festival’s possible cancellation?

And she is canvassing for ideas on how acts can get their work to audiences – and how that might be monetised. “Opening up conversations is the most important thing right now,” she says. “It’s about establishing supportive networks. And being transparent about how difficult the situation is, how many people are affected – in front of and behind the scenes – and about their potential financial losses. The fear is we’re going to see a wipeout of all the people who are coming through and making the next generation of work. That’s the real fear.”

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