One of the foundations of improv comedy is the concept of “Yes, and.” First, the performers must agree to the situation that has been set up. Then, they must add to it.
DC Improv owner and comedy school principal Allyson Jaffe ties that concept to the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re in the longest improv scene of our lives right now with COVID-19,” she says. “We just have to basically say this is a situation that’s happening and we have to ‘Yes, and’ it.”
To comply with the D.C. government’s rapidly changing public health regulations over the past few weeks, DC Improv set small goals to get through its last couple shows. The government guidelines “would change an hour later,” she says, and then change another hour later, “and we just kept rolling with it.”
The venue eventually closed on March 16 and laid off its employees so they could apply for unemployment insurance, then launched a GoFundMe campaign to support former staff members. By March 21, they had surpassed their $10,000 goal. As of March 29, they had raised $32,395 of their new $50,000 goal.
Jaffe hopes the closure is temporary.
“We need comedy. We need to laugh. We need each other to get through all of the hard times,” she says. “It’s cliche, but laughter is the best medicine.”
Learning to perform comedy is a “life skill,” according to Jaffe, which she has seen change students’ lives by helping them overcome personal battles like depression. Some of these previous students are the ones donating to DC Improv’s fundraiser, along with patrons who have been coming to the venue throughout its 27 years of business in the District.
On March 26, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) held a special two-hour teleconference to discuss the agency’s financial state and possible emergency funds for local artists (like the comedians at DC Improv) and small arts nonprofit organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The public was welcome to join the call, and Acting Executive Director of the Commission Heran Sereke–Brhan was upfront with information. In short, their relief plan is on hold.
Leroy Clay, the associate chief financial officer in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO), explains that a percentage of sales tax revenue is the primary source of funding for the Commission. Budgets are based on estimates, but restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have thrown a curveball: Now that only essential businesses are open, and many have significantly decreased operations, those estimates aren’t reliable.
“Generally, we don’t see significant negative adjustments to our estimates unless there’s some sort of rare, significant event impacting revenues,” Clay says. “And, unfortunately, the current pandemic is that significant event.”
So the discussion of emergency funds for the arts is paused until the OCFO gathers current data and compiles revised revenue estimates, which they expect to finish around April 24.
“To put it in absolute simple terms, there is no checkbook that is linked to an account here at CAH,” Sereke–Brhan notes. “The checks are written by the OCFO, which essentially acts as the treasurer for all District agencies.”
Clay emphasizes that this situation is impacting the D.C. government’s budget across the board, not just CAH.
The D.C. government’s general coronavirus website includes a guide to applying for unemployment insurance, noting that—for the first time—self-employed 1099 workers are now eligible for these benefits. This will support creative professionals who fall in this category. CAH says the District’s COVID-19 site will eventually include links to arts-related resources from around the United States.
In addition to sales tax revenue, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities receives an annual grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is part of a partnership agreement that requires individuals and nonprofits meet certain eligibility criteria to receive funding, and mandates that CAH only award grants to individuals and nonprofits. So for-profit businesses like DC Improv would not be eligible for these funds, but Jaffe and the performers might be.
“CAH desperately wants to provide assistance to D.C.’s cultural community during this pandemic,” says the Commission’s chief of external affairs Jeffrey Scott. “We simply don’t know what, if any, funds will be available for any kind of emergency relief.”
In lieu of the local government’s help, grassroots movements like DC Improv’s GoFundMe campaign are what artists and arts organizations are relying on for assistance.
Arena Stage launched a Roaring Back Fund with the goal of raising $1 million to stabilize the organization.
“Theater is one of the areas that is hardest hit,” says Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith in a message announcing the campaign. “All the performing arts are.”
The theater has suspended performances through the rest of its 2019–2020 season and closed its building. These cancelations and their subsequent financial impact led Arena to temporarily furlough the majority of its staff beginning April 13, with fully paid health benefits for those placed on leave. The center’s executive producer Edgar Dobie states in a media advisory announcing these changes that they “look forward to welcoming staff back as soon as we can.”
The day before the furlough was announced, Arena Stage posted footage of its costume shop sewing medical masks for Children’s National Hospital. The group plans to sew through the end of this workweek with the goal of delivering 1,000 masks; Arena sent 500 on March 30.
Meanwhile, theatreWashington seeks to raise $115,000 through its Taking Care Fund to match $100,000 that the organization itself has pledged to this fund along with $10,000 from the Revada Foundation. All proceeds will go to theater professionals who need support, and theatreWashington defines this group as actors, designers, directors, stage managers, box office staff, choreographers, administrators, and technicians, among others.
Arts Administrators of Color, a D.C.-based, volunteer-run network that has developed a national presence, is also supporting arts administrators along with artists in this time.
“There is a segment of arts administration that I think folks kind of forget about,” says Arts Administrators of Color board chair Joshua Henry Jenkins. “It’s the box office managers, it’s the interns, it’s the folks who are seasonal employees or temporary employees, contract workers. Those kinds of folks who maybe aren’t practicing art but who are also financially impacted.”
To serve the needs of its community, Arts Administrators of Color set up a GoFundMe campaign and reached their initial $5,000 goal on March 22. They increased it to $10,000 to meet increasing demand: More than 5,000 people have applied to ask for funds.
“We’re deconstructing and reconstructing how we perform, how we rehearse, how we gather, how we present our work,” Jenkins says. “We’re constantly fighting for folks to see the value of the arts in education and all these sort of capacities. And so the arts are used to being resilient.”
Washington Project for the Arts—a nonprofit with just three employees, two full-time and one part-time—is leading advocacy efforts for visual artists in the District. They are continuing their own programming (which includes hiring contractors and artists on a regular basis) and speeding up the process of releasing their Andy Warhol Foundation Wherewithal Grants, which fund “public-facing alternative and experimental visual art projects inside the nation’s Beltway.” The Warhol Foundation funded a $200,000 two-year grant that WPA intends to split into 10 to 15 grants from $2,5000 to $7,500 each, according to their Jan. 29 announcement of the program.
To document what artists in the visual arts community are going through during the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington Project for the Arts is conducting a survey, with answers collected anonymously to protect the sensitive nature of the material.
“Lost income due to a day-job closing will put me behind on studio and apartment rent almost immediately,” one artist says in their response. “My barely sustainable life as an artist will definitely become unsustainable.”
WPA’s director Peter Nesbett explains that artists rely on multiple gigs to stay afloat. Since they’re not typically in salaried roles, it’s difficult for artists to take time away from their work to sit in government meetings to advocate for themselves. Plus, he mentions, those government meetings “are not broadly advertised.”
So, Washington Project for the Arts and a team of local artists—including Robin Bell, Amy Hughes Braden, Marta Perez-Garcia, and Aaron Maier—attended a virtual meeting with CAH on March 19 to assert visual artists’ needs as the government considers a relief package.
But some artists seem to have little hope. In one survey response to the question of what worries them, an artist said “losing my studio,” which they’ve had for 19 years. “If I can’t pay, what am I supposed to do,” the artist wrote. They also feared being unsupported as a 67-year-old painter.
Nesbett acknowledges the difficulties artists face in the District, where there are limited opportunities for them, a high cost of living, and they are frequently “instrumentalized,” he thinks, for economic gain.
“Clearly artists offer so much more than that,” says Nesbett. “Especially in times of crisis the work that they produce is what we reach for, for meaning.”
He also emphasizes the importance of looking at not just the art but also the artists, people who are capable of being civic leaders and public intellectuals, and who offer hope and inspiration.
Small local arts organization Transformer (which includes a gallery at 1404 P St. NW) is providing a platform to connect the public with artists just for this purpose. Through a project called “Phone Call,” proposed by artist Ginevra Shay, anyone can sign up to get a telephone call from a poet or an artist who will read to listeners or hold conversations with them. The point is “to reconnect people within [the] intimate space of a phone call,” the description notes. As of March 24, more than 50 people had signed up.
They are also harkening back to pre-digital communications by delivering handmade and small-batch printed zines through U.S. Mail.
Transformer’s co-founder, executive and artistic director Victoria Reis, remembers when things like phone calls and receiving zines in the mail were commonplace. “It wasn’t so much social distancing as it was distant socializing,” she says.
Reis notes that artists who participate in Transformer’s programming are paid. They also support artists through their online Flatfile store, which displays artwork (priced at under $500) from local emerging artists, who receive 70 percent of the money from sales.
As for how the community can support artists during this time, Reis encourages people who can give to do so, even if it’s a small amount. “You know $5, $20, it adds up,” she says.
These public fundraisers have big shoes to fill: the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities reports that thus far during the fiscal year 2020, it has awarded nearly $25 million in grants for the arts and humanities, some of which funded projects and development initiatives; $1,556,750 supported 272 individual professionals across eight wards and $13,347,313 went toward the general operating support of 125 nonprofit organizations that serve the District.
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