As the Arts Council for Northern Ireland opens an emergency fund for the arts sector which has been hit hard with the closure of theatres, galleries and performance venues, Linda Stewart hears how four people have been affected by the coronavirus crisis.
Actor Michael Condron (42), a well-known face from Game of Thrones, The Tudors and Soft Border Patrol, has taken on part-time work as a delivery driver for Asda during the outbreak. The Toronto-born actor lives in Belfast and is in lockdown alone, as his girlfriend Lucy is self-isolating with her mum. He has a 25-year-old son.
Michael had several pieces of work lined up at the start of the outbreak, but all are now on hold.
“I had some development work with a theatre on a new show that is coming out and I was supposed to be in a new pilot for BBC Radio Ulster, so there were a few days of work in that,” he says.
“But it’s what needs to be and this is for the greater good. From a work point of view, it’s disappointing. Hopefully it will be a short-term loss for long-term gain.”
Instead, he has become a delivery driver for Asda and has found the work has allowed him to continue socially interacting with people and keeps him in a good place mentally while in lockdown alone.
“It’s brilliant for me — it gets me out of the house. I do 20 calls a day when I’m working, so I meet 20 different people and I get to have 20 different conversations. Some of them have come to be regular customers,” Michael says.
“It’s different every day, which is great and it’s just been good for my head mentally.”
One customer chatted to him about her nephew, the internationally renowned Skyfall writer John Logan, while another handed him an envelope with seven protective masks in it.
“To be totally honest, at the start I was a little bit apprehensive about people recognising me from Soft Border Patrol and Game of Thrones, but six weeks into it, I found I don’t really care about that,” Michael says.
“I’ve been having a brilliant time doing this and meeting people I’ve never met before.”
The job has given him ideas for all sorts of new characters and he is even mulling over the idea of continuing part-time work as a driver after the crisis.
“I absolutely want to keep it on, even if it’s 10 or 12 hours a week. Everybody I work with has been fantastic,” he says.
However, he does miss being in a rehearsal room and working together with other actors to put a production together. “I miss it desperately,” he admits.
“I can imagine at the end of this, there are going to be some amazing projects that are born. It gives people the opportunity to think and to work on stuff.
“But financially, it’s very difficult. Sitting in the house and writing is all well and good, but if you’re struggling to pay the electricity bill, that is little comfort.”
However, Michael feels the new Arts Council emergency programme will be a good opportunity for people to develop ideas.
“There’ll be nuggets of gold in there and it will help new people access opportunities that they wouldn’t have had previously,” he says.
“Hopefully this is an opportunity for people to see how important the arts are for the wider society in Northern Ireland.”
Watch Michael Condron talk about his current situation at: https://youtu.be/9gpjPQ8Xyds
Musician Eoin O'Callaghan writes original music and won Best Album in the NI Music Prize last year for Borders by Elma Orchestra, his collaboration with Ryan Veil. The musician (39) is in lockdown in Londonderry with wife Kitty and children Ronan (13), Naoise (10) and Dara (9).
As well as his own writing, he has been producing for Ryan McMullan and has been touring all over the world, with shows in Mexico, Germany, France and England, and was due to play South By South West in Texas when it was cancelled.
"Next week I was supposed to play a sold-out gig in the Ulster Hall with the Ulster Orchestra," Eoin says.
"Just as things were starting to rise up, the whole lockdown thing happened.
"I'm lucky I have a studio at home. To be honest, not a lot has changed for me except having kids knocking on the door instead of them being at school."
Eoin says he has lost a lot of money through tours and gigs being cancelled.
"I lost a lot of money when South By South West was cancelled - all the flights and hotels that have not been reimbursed. With South By South West, Ryan and I are down about £4,000 between us.
"The problem is, as well as not being able to gig, you can't have anybody in the studio. Like anybody who is self-employed, I'm trying to work out how to pay the bills."
Eoin is currently trying to do some writing with Ryan McMullan via Zoom, but admits it isn't ideal.
"It's not the same as being in the same room," he says.
"In Zoom, the mic cancels out the piano - there are wee hiccups like that.
"My wife and I are trying to do homeschooling at the moment, although it never ends up being during school hours - it's spread out through the day. We spent a lot of time outside when the weather was nice, so we had science questions about the sun, keeping everybody interested while getting education," he says.
"That is the hardest thing trying to keep them interested and not killing each other. It's going alright so far."
While Eoin has received some help from a couple of musician's charities, and welcomes the new Arts Council fund, he admits even at the best of times, you're only ever breaking even.
"If you can stay breaking even constantly, you're doing all right. You just have to have the confidence that the future will be better," he says.
Tony Devlin (42), artistic director of Brassneck Theatre Company, had his production of In the Name of the Son cancelled the day before it was due to premiere at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast and another production, Conversations with Angels, due to premiere at the end of May, has also been cancelled.
He is in lockdown in Belfast with his partner, Joanna, who manages a GP surgery, and twins Eirinn and Roise (5).
Tony says he was really looking forward to the world premieres of In the Name of the Son, a one man show starring Shaun Blaney and focusing on the story of Gerry Conlon.
"It was a really beautiful piece that I thought might have had a lot of legs. We were taking it to the Edinburgh Festival," he says.
"But it will come back and it will be a piece worth going to see. We know it's a great piece and it's there and it's ready."
The team was also staging a sell out week-long run of Ireland's Call by John Connors at the Roddy McCorley Social Club, which is being rescheduled, and was due to stage the world premiere of Conversations with Angels by Maria Connolly at the end of May.
"That was a real kick in the groin to us all - it's about five women who go to see an angel healer," Tony says.
"The irony is that it's even more relevant now that we are all going through this. When we come out of this crisis, I think Conversations with Angels is going to be the perfect tonic for people coming out of such a strange bizarre pandemic, because the whole play is about togetherness and how much we have in common with each other."
Brassneck Theatre Company is a non core-funded charity which is entirely reliant on its box office, so if theatres cannot open until Christmas, it will have no income stream until then.
"After this month, we don't have the resources to pay wages," Tony says.
"We're finding it very tough. We're good at being pragmatic and inventive and having some ingenuity at dealing with circumstances. We've been having talks every day about what we can do and how we roll out the product online."
Tony describes the new fund as a lifeline but admits it won't be sufficient for everybody.
"That said, the funds are there and available for people, and people should apply," he says.
"There's been a bit of rancour online about how the funds are being distributed, but I would encourage anybody who's an artist to apply and it will help."
Niamh Flanagan (53) is executive director of Theatre NI, a support organisation for theatre and the performing arts.
She says the theatre sector was already in bad shape for some years due to cuts in funding and that fragility is now affecting large numbers of people who work on a freelance basis.
While some are trying to navigate the Universal Credit system, many are falling through the gaps, she says, citing one professional who was refused Universal Credit, even though the household income has fallen from two incomes to one very low income.
Many younger members of the sector had been combining creative work with bar and restaurant jobs in the same venues and have lost their entire income.
"People are not able to cover their bills," she says.
"One of the things that has been really clear to me is the centrality of the performing arts to people's lives, which has been somewhat missed in recent years.
"It's one of our unique selling points - the stories we tell of our people, the human beings that live here, and that to some extent has been devalued over the last number of years.
"Many of our people are quite hidden because they are the people who make it happen behind the scenes. They are a central point of the ecosystem of making a performance happen. There are a lot of people working behind the scenes to make things happen that we often forget about."
Niamh welcomes the emergency fund, saying it will help some people, but there may potentially be people who will fall through the gaps and she is glad to hear that the Government is open to hearing about what is happening in the sector.
It will also be important to provide support for venues who are no longer able to keep their doors open, she says.
But she stresses: "It's quite difficult for people to be creative if they're not having their basic needs met. So the priority is that people's basic needs are met at first - people need money to survive."
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland opened a funding programme to support artists and performers during the Covid-19 crisis on Monday. The Artists Emergency Programme (AEP), worth £500,000, offers freelance artists, creative practitioners and performers the opportunity to apply for grants of up to £5,000 each.
The Arts Council's National Lottery funding will be used to support the research, design and future presentation of arts events and performances, including resources to help artists develop their creative practice. The AEP fund provides much needed financial support and employment, a lifeline to artists, at a time when the arts sector has been decimated under quarantine conditions, venue and gallery closures, festival and event cancellations and the disappearance of live audiences.
The Arts Council's Artists Emergency Programme is one element of the £1.5m funding package recently announced by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, to support the arts and wider culture sectors during the current pandemic. Other measures will be rolled out to support arts organisations, libraries and museums in the coming weeks.
The rolling AEP programme will open for applications until further notice, for proposals ending March 2021.
Expression of Interest forms and guidance notes are available at artscouncil-ni.org/funding/scheme/artists-emergency-programme.