Coping & Resiliency  – How did the Arts Community See Us Through Panic, Boredom and Personal Awakenings

I  miss outdoor concerts and day trips to galleries in Toronto. This December, mostly I miss the murmurs of an audience and the dimming of the lights as players on a stage ready to perform a holiday show.

Unfortunately  for now ghost lights are all that can be found on darkened stages across the world, softly illuminating our playhouses and performance spaces during COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions. This has provided ample playing time for the ghosts.

Practically, these single bulbs on a darkened stage  keep theatre staff safe by providing soft illumination  so they can find light switches. Depending on who you ask, the light may help to ward off or allow the ghosts of the theatre their own opportunity to perform when  no one is around.

Despite the best efforts of many communities to keep the lights on in our performance spaces they were forced to turn them off and pivot to online avenues.   Seeing art, a play, or a concert online just doesn’t compare to experiencing it in person.

The arts and culture community is anxiously waiting for COVID-19 to bow out.

Essentially Working?

The arts and culture sector has been evolving to navigate new pathways to reach audiences during these challenging times. Theatre companies, performance venues, visual artists and musicians  were quick to offer anxiety relief through their online entertainment early during the global COVID-19 shutdowns.

From musicians playing violins on balconies in Italy, to a dramatic uptake in online art classes, to the live stream crashing during the debut of Hamilton on Disney plus, the world clearly needed the entertainment, comfort and distraction that only the arts  can provide.

So I ask myself, does this mean that performers, musicians, and artists are essential workers? The question is loaded and the answer is complex. One thing is clear, cultural arts organizations and arts workers have jumped into action during a time of heighten panic around the world and have proven how comforting their crafts are  across  cultures, nationalities and  political beliefs.

Resiliency Building

So, why was it that arts workers were busy considering how to reach out online planning how their crafts could help and heal,  while the general population were standing inline at Costco to buy  toilet paper,   homes and offices were being disinfected, and panic over mortgage and rent was revving up?

It’s all in the learned coping skills. The life of an artist, in any discipline, is intriguing.

The resilience required to survive in the arts and culture industry during the pre-pandemic world alone has already built an army of survivors — creative soldiers who have been freely sharing their talents and skills in a remarkably empathetic  manner. We are the field most approached to work for ‘exposure’ or to volunteer to play at your charity ball.

Making this look easy

Many strengths of character are cultivated through this ritual of gig work, steady employment, contracts, second jobs, cutting it close several times  and budgeting.

Tied to personal value and passion,  artistic professions are often considered to be ones of self-indulgence. But, the work of character study, learning an instrument, teaching an art class or producing an eye-pleasing visual piece is often hidden in the perceived ease of the delivery.   

The truth is that most of the successful actors, writers, directors, dancers, musicians  and artists you know likely come from humble arts and culture beginnings. By paying their dues they form a unique sort of resiliency. High levels of competition, occupational stress, performance anxiety, precarious employment, a constant cohort of fresher talent, a downward trend in earnings, and high levels of rejection all contribute to a seasoned and resilient arts and culture worker.

Pressing Forward

Subjective and varying in degree, it’s true stressors are  a natural and  daily experience for individuals in many fields. The effect of stress on the mind and body can be helpful or damaging. It’s in  mitigating ones exposure to damaging chronic stress where the  chances of developing impaired psychological functions like burnout or anxiety can be reduced. But what if one cannot escape the stresses? Chronic work-related stress will drain a person’s resilience and damage their immune system, making them more susceptible to physical disease, anxiety and depression. One must offset the effects of stress if they are to have  a long-term career in arts and culture. Therefore, dealing with the stress and uncertainty were skills already familiar to those in the field.

The good news is that many biological reactions, such as the fight or flight response, to everyday stressors are naturally protective and reparative. This natural ability to bounce back  acts as a biological and psychological buffer in moments of adversity and triumph, which can have similar stress responses despite being positive experiences.  

Coping Skills

Life can be unpredictable. Moments of challenge, disappointment, failure, alongside moments of joy, and approval can really define who one is as a person and as an art and culture worker or artist.

Positive adjustments in attitude is also a key component in avoiding stress. That being said, the mind has its own way of naturally protecting us sometimes by employing coping mechanisms and personality traits. For instance, downcasting can temporarily provide psychological relief and we do this subconsciously.

But opposite, upcasting, having someone to look up to, can be a great mechanism for longterm coping. Having healthy relationships with fellow industry members or having a mentor is essential to most personality types found in the performing arts sector. Joining memberships and guilds offers a tremendous about of comradery and support.

The Personality Factor

Generally, being extroverts, many performers already have several innate short-term coping mechanisms built right into their personalities. As a coping mechanism, extroversion is generally correlated with optimism, positive reappraisal, and rational problem-solving. However, being turned on to full volume for long periods of time or not having people around to socialize with, can be stressful on extroverts.

More,  using humor to deflate tension or having a physical outlet like acting, sculpting, painting, dancing or singing can release pent up emotions.   Many in this sector also have built a hardiness and a high achievement motivation.

Building Opportunity

There is no clear cut path to success in the performing arts or arts and culture sectors. Artists often build their own pathways to opportunities. According to the most recent Canada statistics report, typically artists reported their total income directly from art and culture employment at 56% less then other fields did. Also reported was that 50% are self-employed, compared with only 12% of all Canadian workers. This likely means most arts workers are working another job or have  seasonal contracts and casual gig work as it is . 

As a result of the ebbs and flows of arts and culture employment, we see increased personal energy and higher self-starter behavior.

Reliably persistent in the face of challenges, armed with  social intelligence and positive self-regulation they have an unique style to withstand uncertainty. The result is that this industry has produced individuals who have unique abilities to cope with pressure and unpredictability.

We continue to see pivots and interesting offerings as we head into our second provincial shutdown  here in Ontario. When the playhouses reopen and performance spaces and galleries invite you back in, take a moment to applaud their contribution during what will go down in history as the very beginning of a global renaissance and renewed appreciation  of art and culture.


To find out how I’ve been developing online theraputic arts activities & projects and free beginners painting classes during this challenging year, please visit http://www.bewhimsiartloft.ca

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