An industry in quarantine

How local entertainers are finding ways to survive the pandemic

Cooper Piercy, Staff Writer

In early March, dozens upon dozens of actors, stage hands, technicians, light crews, writers, and directors showed up for the final dress rehearsal for the Blue Barn Theater’s newest production, Marjorie Prime. Then, in the words of Blue Barn’s Resident Technical Director Bill Kirby, “Everything stopped.”

This story of half-finished productions, rehearsals for shows that would never happen, and mass cancellations is one repeated in theaters all across the country. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many entertainers feel as if the industry has collapsed.

The fears of many of these entertainers aren’t wrongly placed either. In a survey conducted by the University of Nebraska-Omaha in April of this year, they found that 97% of arts, entertainment, and recreation based businesses in Nebraska had experienced negative impacts due to COVID-19.

“Our [national] live events industry is more than just theater or dance, it encompases almost 12 million people,” Kirby said. “Everyone in these companies is in a small to medium sized company,and we add about one-trillion dollars to the U.S. GDP.” 

Local Omahans in the entertainment industry were keen to stress the importance of their jobs, to both themselves and the community. 

“I believe it’s as important as it can be,” local musician Sam Lallman said.

For artists like Lallman, part of the appeal of being an entertainer in Omaha is the ability to be a part of what they see to be a diverse and important part of the city’s history. The history of Omaha is filled with innovations in music, art, theater, and other forms of entertainment, something not at all lost on the entertainers that make it all possible.

“Having that in a city, especially one built on segregation and other divides, having any sort of group that is cultural, or artistic, or even political -as music often is- can be very beneficial and a gain for the city,” Lallman said.

However in the COVID-19 pandemic, local entertainers haven’t just lost the opportunity to be a part of Omaha’s culture, but they’ve also lost economic opportunities, many of which being bound up in other areas of the economy.

“I’ve already seen bars close down that aren’t likely to reopen. So there’s already venues gone that we’ll never be able to play at again,” lead singer for local band Lemon Fresh Day, Troy Tompkins said.

While the big picture may seem apocalyptic for an industry defined by small, “sometimes invisible,” businesses as described byKirby, the real story is happening at the personal level, in the day-to-day lives of Omaha entertainers.

“I’ve gone into major credit card debt,” Tompkins said.“Those [band members] without day jobs have been collecting unemployment checks.”

While many local entertainers have been left out to fend for themselves, many others have found comradery with their fellow entertainers.

“I believe Omaha has had a lot of change over these past few months,”  Lallman said “A sort of solidarity has grown.”

Those who need help are often able to find it among other entertainers in their situation.

“A lot of grants have opened up to agencies wanting to help local entertainers and gig workers,” Omaha screenwriter, producer and actor Tim Barr said.

Like Barr, Kirby has been keenly watching for ways to see local entertainers get relief, but instead of looking to grants and local nonprofits, Kirby is looking to halls of government.

“We’re really pressuring them to pass the RESTART Act, which focuses on gig workers and small to medium sized businesses. They’re also looking at expanding the PUA, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance., and that was that $600  you would’ve heard about a while back.”

Kirby knows that local entertainers aren’t alone in trying to get relief legislation passed, and so for those who want to help, he said, “Make sure to write your representatives.”


An Industry in Quarantine


How local entertainers are surviving the pandemic