Our full statement given to Stormont’s Community Committee on the effect of Covid-19 restrictions on the arts.
thank you for inviting me to speak with you today
I know you’ve heard from many experienced people over the last few weeks and I hope I can add to their contribution and to your insight .
I’m not only here as a performer but also as a producer, the managing director of a production company and as Artistic Director to the largest performing arts school in Northern Ireland.
The comments I make will hopefully give you some insight into other aspects of this wide subject while also reinforcing other points that I’m sure have already been made.
As a singer I have performed on many stages from the Royal Albert Hall to Las Vegas. I have appeared in lead roles in musicals in Londons West End and PBS television America. I regularly tour Europe and in the last 25 yrs I’ve performed all over the world. As a Director and Producer I have staged shows in Europe and the USA and my company Peter Corry Productions creates entertainment not only for theatres but also for corporate events and local councils.
I am passionate about working with young people and as the Artistic Director of the Belfast School of Performing Arts I’m involved in the artistic education of over 600 young people here in Northern Ireland.
Because of the nature of my experience my comments will not only relate to music, arts and entertainment but also to education, events, weddings, business, hospitality, tourism and mental health…. and I suppose that in a way is my first point. The industry that myself and others like me work in is so diverse, so all embracing that it’s hard to address it with legislation and guide lines which are presented in broad strokes. Believe me I don’t envy those of you who are dealing with our current situation and legislation but I’m hoping conversations like this can help those who are in charge, make decisions with understanding of some of the complicated nuances that we in our industry face.
At the start of 2020 my company was looking forward to its busiest year yet.
From a financial point we generally work on two types of projects:
Firstly – work which we produce ourselves and take the financial risk on – in other words we cover the costs and make a profit through ticket sales
Secondly – projects where we are contracted by clients to create and to supply entertainment. This entertainment can be everything from singers and dancers to projections, furniture that comes to life and snow machines. It’s supplied for International conventions, award ceremonies, private dinners or council events.
Like many since March we have seen our projects and work disappear. By the end of this year Peter Corry Productions income will be roughly 20% of what it was projected to be at the start of the year.
The other thing I should say is that both up until the pandemic we as a company and me as an artist have not applied for financial support from the Arts Council or any other public body.
However out of necessity that changed in April as I approached the Titanic Quarter with the idea of a series of drive in concerts. I believed we were all in need of something to look forward to as by the end of June we had all been in lockdown for several months. I also believed the drive in idea was the safest way to stage an event at that point but I also knew there would be a small window of opportunity when it would be relevant and attractive to an audience.
To make the drive in model work financially it needed support or sponsorship and after initial positive signs this did not transpire. Unfortunately we had to make the difficult decision to cancel the event disappointing those who had booked to go as well as disappointing approximately 70 performers, tech crew and front of house staff, some of who hadn’t worked at that point for 4 months – some still haven’t worked, 9 months and counting.
What was also disappointing is that these would’ve been the first concerts to take place anywhere in the UK or Ireland for 4 months and would’ve received much coverage nationally and possibly internationally. The Northern Ireland tourist board were also ready to push this positive message when we had to cancel the event.
Thankfully there has been some support for artists during this period. I have to say that in my opinion, after a shaky start, in general the financial support offered has been welcome. However this is my experience but not everyones. There are those who have fallen between the cracks. For example apparently there have been situations of individuals who have not attached certain documentation to their application and instead of them being contacted to advise them that they need to attach these documents they were later informed much that their applications could not be accepted because of the situation and they were ineligible for a grant. These grants were in many cases not for a project or a production but to help the individuals pay their bills and keep their heads above water.
This industry is made up of people both in the spotlight and behind. Most of these people are self employed, so it’s important that they are supported through this as much as the buildings and venues they work in.
Something that has become apparent to me over this period is, in some quarters – not everywhere, but in some places is the lack of understanding for this business and I use the word business intentionally.
We provide a service, a product like many other businesses. Some people sell kitchens or cars or clothes and without wanting to sound too theatrical we sell smiles, we sell memories, we sell inspiration.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last few months – how do you quantify what we do – its not easy. In fact its really hard to do without sounding grand – for instance lets take music. In many cases songs are the backdrop to the touchstone moments in our lives. You hear a song and it reminds you of your parents, or your first kiss, your first married dance, the one you sang to your child when they were young or indeed the song that reminds you of the loved one who’s no longer with you. That’s the power of music, it inspires and comforts in a way nothing else can.
I hope this year gives an opportunity for all of us to look upon music, entertainment and the arts in a different way. The UK and in particular Northern Ireland falls way behind the rest of Europe in its support for this industry. I sincerely hope this can be addressed.
What we do is important for people and will be even more important as we hopefully come out of this difficult time. Its invaluable for our well being, our sense of community and for many peoples mental health. In March and April it was interesting to see how many of us turned to music to help us through the uncertain times we were in.
Some do it as a hobby, a social outlet and a way of feeling part of a community and for others it’s their career, their industry, their profession. Those of us who are within this bracket enjoy what we do yes but its work and needs to be respected as such. It takes years to train and learn the skills required to work in this industry and this is all too often not recognised or given the merit it is due.
Our music, our writers and our dance is known around the world more than our plumbing, more than our garden centres and more than our car making ability (unless you want to count De Lorean). My point is, in many occasions it is this which takes us onto the international stage. When I tour I take every opportunity to mention where I’m from and I know I’m an ambassador for Northern Ireland. I once sang Danny Boy to an audience of 5000 people in a theatre in Inner Mongolia and they cheered when they heard it because they recognised the tune. Our music and culture is our calling card around the world.
What we do feeds into not only tourism but hospitality and also education. And it is a profession which should be valued for what it brings to people.
Over the last few months what has been difficult to get my head around among other things is when hospitality and cinemas were permitted to open up and music and performance was not. The logic just didn’t make sense, especially after its was deemed no more of a risk to sing than it was to speak at the same volume.
The idea that you could sit at a social distance from someone in a pub or restaurant but not in a theatre or concert hall was hard to understand as was the idea that live music only occurred when people wanted to shout over it in a restaurant or bar – hence the reason to ban it was nonsensical. What about those occasions when people would have gone to sit quietly and actually be there to listen to the music. What about the occasions when a harpist was playing quietly in the corner of a room at a wedding reception.
Moot points at the moment I know but hard to understand at the time and from this train of thought we find that live music is currently banned in legislation. It places live music in the incredible position of being illegal to all intents and purposes.
Its to education I’d like to go to next. Over the last few months many performing arts schools have frankly been completely and utterly confused about what they can do and what they cant. Teachers are wanting to earn a living but also the last thing they want to do is something which is against the rules and guidelines. It appears that when certain schools have approached councils or others for advice, the advice falls on the side of extreme caution, partly because those giving it are understandably not wanting to take a risk, again because guidelines has a lack of detail. So classes are cancelled no matter the size of the class, suitability of the venue and to the detriment to the livelihoods of the teachers or the mental well being of the pupils.
It is hard to describe the satisfaction, joy and pleasure young people can get by performing. I know it’s not for all but if it is something that you enjoy, there is nothing quite like it. For many young people performing is the one place they feel they belong, some feel they don’t fit in anywhere else in the way they do at a performing arts school and in turn I believe the benefits they get through being there are every bit as important as their maths or english lessons.
The vast majority of those who go to performing arts schools and dance schools will not go on to do this as a profession but the benefit to their confidence, understanding of others and ability to communicate in later life is immeasurable. I’m sure people like you who’s career it is to communicate and get the things you are passionate about across understand this. I ask that this be considered when future lockdown measures are being proposed.
I have spoken to many of our pupils and they are struggling mentally with the uncertainty, lack of routine and inability to take part in what the enjoy most. We have introduced lessons on zoom however like entertainment, these have worked as a stop gap but in the long term they are no substitutes for being in the same room as others and interacting with flesh and blood rather than screens and mute buttons.
Parents are also concerned about the amount of time their children are spending in front of a screen. Could it be considered that performing arts schools be considered with the school education category rather than being placed with sports because of the dance classes?
Going forward we need support to help find imaginative ways to open up performance. As well as opening up events, teaching and entertainment in a safe way.
Then we can get back to putting smiles back on peoples faces.