Surviving 2020: An arts organisation vs a global pandemic

Harvest Rain's CEO, Tim O'Connor, writes about how the global pandemic has affected the organisation, how it has survived, and the way forward in the age of social distancing.

Harvest Rain CEO Tim O'Connor observes social distancing at the Hayward Street Studios.

The last few months have been challenging for everyone in the face of COVID-19 and the ensued lockdowns worldwide. Many have lost their jobs and livelihoods, with businesses unable to pay their staff due to lack of income as a result of the shut-downs. Everyone in every country, in every city, in every industry has felt the impact of the pandemic in some way, but it’s been especially acute for those of us who work in the entertainment industry. Gathering people in large groups is the very foundation of what we do, so the introduction of social distancing has really brought our industry to its knees!

For us at Harvest Rain, like so many others in the arts industry, these last few months have been a rollercoaster ride (the kind with so many spins and turns that you lose your shoes half-way through and then vomit all over yourself on the final loop!). Things started shutting down for us in mid-March when the Prime Minister announced the ban on large public gatherings. We were just about to open our arena production of THE WIZARD OF OZ in Canberra with a cast of over 500 young performers, and that had to be immediately cancelled. The Melbourne season scheduled for July was cancelled shortly after. The entirety of our youth training programs across the country were wiped out. The full-time students at our Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre were due to have a three week season of their production of GODSPELL in our 100-seat theatre at our headquarters in Stafford – we managed to get two performances out before the bans went into effect and the rest of the season had to be cancelled.

In the space of just a few days, the restrictions and forced cancellations wiped $4million worth of income from our year, and we shut our doors with no knowledge of when we would be able to re-open.
The students of Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre in GODSPELL.

With shows and training suspended, there was no work left for our staff to do, and with the loss of so much income, we had no money to keep them employed. Shutting everything down in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak was heart-wrenching, but standing our team down was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do in over two decades in this business. So many of our team members have families, mortgages to pay and mouths to feed; it was just devastating that suddenly the rug was being pulled out from under all of us.

When the government announced the JobKeeper program, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. The program was designed to provide businesses with funds to retain their staff, so for us it meant we would be able to keep 22 eligible members of our team in employment, even those who had been stood down. We were incredibly grateful for the desperately needed assistance – the first time Harvest Rain had received any kind of financial support from the government in its 35 year history!

Nonetheless, the JobKeeper program came with some challenges. The program required us to pay our team for the whole month of April before the government would provide reimbursement in May. That meant we had to find $3,000 to pay each staff member for the month; a total of $66,000 at a time when our monthly turnover had been diminished by 90%. As a not-for-profit youth arts organisation, we don’t have massive financial reserves – every dollar we make goes back into the business and into creating new opportunities for young performers around the country. After we paid out costs for the cancelled arena shows that we would never be able to make any money back on, we didn’t have much left in the bank.

Nonetheless, we scrounged every dollar we could find to get every eligible member of our team on the JobKeeper program, and then waited patiently for our reimbursement to come in May. But that reimbursement never came.

By the end of May, we had outlaid almost $150,000 in payments and not received a cent back from the government. We called the ATO almost every day in May asking when we could expect our reimbursement, but nobody seemed to be able to give us a straight answer. Every day we would speak to a different person at the ATO, and every day they would say they didn’t know what was going on and we should call back the next day.

We were told our application had been escalated.

We were told it was under review.

We were told it was being investigated.

We were told the ATO was swamped and nobody had time to look at our application.

We were told to call back in the morning.

With almost no income for the two months prior, our bank account was almost empty and we were facing the reality that our team would no longer be able to be paid. Another heart-wrenching moment in a year full of heart-wrenching moments.

In desperation, I put a call in to Anika Wells’ office – Anika is the Federal member for Lilley in Queensland where our headquarters is located. Her team were incredibly sympathetic and put a call in to the ATO on our behalf to see if they could get any answers or get the payment moving. A few days later, at the start of June, the reimbursement finally arrived, and not a moment too soon! It was touch and go for a moment there, which is how most of the last few months has felt – like walking on the edge of a precipice without a safety harness and just hoping against hope that you don’t fall!

So let’s face it, this last few months has been a pretty stressful time. But for all the thrills and spills, I think it is important to look on the bright side and find things to be grateful for.

In our hour of need, lots of the families we work with supported us by donating their training fees back to us when classes had to be cancelled. Some patrons even donated their ticket purchases back to us when our arena shows were cancelled. That incredible generosity is what’s kept us going through this unprecedented time.

With a bit of quick thinking and hard work from our team, we were able to move a lot of our youth training online, so throughout the lockdown we’ve been able to connect with our young people from all across the country through our new online Interactive program, which has been quite fun and exciting. And now as restrictions are easing, we are all looking forward to reconnecting with our young artists in person again once classes recommence in Term 3!

Once we’re into Stage 3 of restrictions lifting in July, our small theatre in Stafford will re-open, albeit with social distancing, which means our 100-seat theatre will essentially become a 30-seat theatre! We’re going to try and make that work so our BAMT students can present their postponed season of GODSPELL in July and then ALL SHOOK UP in September.

Who knows when we’ll be allowed back into the arenas again – that could be a while away.

For most other industries, the three stage re-opening plan that the government has set out will see them back up and operational by mid-July, but the entertainment industry doesn’t even feature on that plan.

The cast of Harvest Rain's production of THE WIZARD OF OZ - ARENA SPECTACULAR

No official mention has yet been made of how or when theatres and entertainment centres will b e allowed to re-open to their full extent, so we’re all just hanging out in limbo making multiple possible plans for how things could play out in the comings months.

We’re supposed to be touring THE WIZARD OF OZ to Perth in October, but who knows if borders will even be open by then?

Our arena production of WE WILL ROCK YOU is set to open in Brisbane in January next year, but will social distancing still be a thing by then? If so, we will need a space the size of three football fields just to safely house the mass ensemble cast of over 800 people with appropriate physical distancing, let alone the audience!

I currently have no less than 17 different back up plans in place for how the next 12 months could play out, depending on how and when the restrictions are eased.

It’s almost impossible to forward plan, but still we remain hopeful and positive. We’re artists, which means we’re nimble and adaptable, and we’re really skilled at making something out of nothing! We always find a way forward. We’re survivors, and we will survive.

Even in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, good stuff has been happening all around us. Through this last few crazy months, even when it felt like the bad stuff was overwhelming, the good stuff was running right alongside it. In these trying times, we have to keep our eyes peeled for the good stuff, and acknowledge it, and say it out loud, and highlight it and draw a big circle around it, because what we give our attention to expands. What we focus on multiplies.

So, I want to say a big thank-you to all those of you who have stood by us through this crisis and helped us to keep our heads above water through it all. Even though we don’t really know what’s up ahead, we are buoyed by the knowledge that we have so many good folk walking alongside us. Our creative community is stronger than ever - thanks in no small part to coronavirus forcing us to all come together while apart - and hand in heavily sanitised hand I know we can all face whatever else 2020 brings our way!

Onwards, friends!


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