When the COVID-19 crisis first took over and the world settled in for quarantine, artists looked as if they might be the most hard hit—what could a ballerina do without a stage and an audience, an actor without a film set, an artist without space to show their work? Yet while the pandemic has indelibly affected the ability of theaters, museums and studios to operate, plenty of artists across disciplines have mined these unprecedented circumstances for inspiration, not only creating new work, but thriving and, against all odds, growing their audiences. Much of their success has been enabled by the Internet and a suddenly rapt world of viewers desperate for stimulation, but as much owes to their own indefatigably creative spirits. And often enough, these inventive performers and creators have found that they’re not just helping strangers stay sane and engaged—they’re finding new purpose for themselves, too, that will long outlast the virus.
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The Composer: Lisa Bielawa
“My life as a musician has always been about a certain balance between solitude and an enormous amount of people time,” says composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa. But when the pandemic began, “that balance was completely obliterated.” It quickly became clear that choral music in particular—a specialty of Bielawa’s—would not return to live performance any time soon, so necessity inspired invention. Bielawa began composing a social-distancing-friendly choral work, Broadcast From Home, which turned her composing process inside out: first she’d solicit written or spoken personal accounts of the COVID-19 crisis; choose some to set to music; then invite anyone interested to record themselves singing the lines as she composed them. To create each movement or “chapter,” she’s acting as composer, engineer and producer to blend as many as 70 different recorded vocal lines together. “That I get to hear people’s actual voices—it mitigates the loneliness,” Bielawa says. “I’ve never felt such communion with the people I’m writing for.” She’s received institutional support from The Kaufman Center as well as private donors, and she’s currently writing Chapter 11 and nearing an hour of music, with no end planned in sight.
The Artist: Hannah Beerman
Painter and multimedia artist Hannah Beerman was just a couple months out of Hunter College’s MFA program when the pandemic began. “I was feeling really impotent and sad about the state of the world, and I was really mad at myself for that,” the 28-year-old recalls. “It was kind of an experiment to try to channel that into something.” She realized that while she wasn’t famous, she did have a pretty decent network, including mentors like the painters Katherine Bradford and EJ Hauser. So Beerman started an Instagram account for a project, which she named Artists for Humans, with a simple premise: She’d ask artists she knew to auction works on the platform for various New York charities.
She soon found that the account practically ran itself, with artists she’d never met reaching out and offering their work; it has raised six figures, she says, and inspired similar projects in other cities, like Art for NOLA’s Sake, in New Orleans. In turn, Beerman has seen a much wider network proliferate. Some AFH participants have started crit groups together; others have reconnected with old friends; many are buying one another’s work; and there’s even a couple that has fallen in love. And though it has arguably helped Beerman too—connecting her with new collaborators like Brigitte Mulholland, co-director of the Anton Kern Gallery— she’s equally excited to put up-and-coming artists she knows and loves “in front of collectors who are keeping a very close eye on this account.”
The Singer-Songwriter: Shamir
While quarantine has forced mainstream entertainers to dramatically adjust or pause their projects in the absence of big-budget shoots and giant creative teams, independent artists—who’ve made careers through scrappiness and
DIY savvy—are thriving. No one embodies this more than the queer Philadelphia experimentalist Shamir Bailey. “I’m such an introvert,” he explains. “When quarantine happened, a lot of people were freaking out. But I didn’t get too thrown off. I’ve actually been a little bit more productive.”
He’d already been preparing to release his new record this fall, an album that gently returns to the more commercial and pop-leaning sounds of his debut album, Ratchet, from 2015. His isolationist spirit served him well when it came time to record the music video for “On My Own,” a dreamy song that Shamir wrote last summer, not quite realizing how thematically appropriate it would be for 2020. Shot entirely in his Philly home, the lo-fi clip features Shamir against an array of makeshift backdrops, illuminated by a rainbow spectrum of lights. In front of a blue tarp as a “green” screen, he plays guitar on the back of a couch, flanked by stuffed animals. He appears serene and in his element. While others have flailed in panic or halted their new releases, Shamir has made the best of lockdown, and “On My Own” has been transformed into its understated anthem.
The comedian: Julio Torres
Whether as a writer on Saturday Night Live, creator and star of HBO’s bizarro Spanish language horror comedy Los Espookys, or stand-up comedian (see his hilariously unsettling HBO special My Favorite Shapes), Julio Torres has always rooted his humor in the drama of the mundane, even the seemingly inanimate. So when he left Chile, where the second season of Los Espookys was filming, to return to New York for quarantine, he wasn’t creatively stymied. “So much of my work is, like, me as a child playing alone in my bedroom, and quarantine has definitely enabled that,” Torres says. In late May he hosted My Sun in Aquarius—an ad hoc comedy show on Zoom starring famous friends like Fred Armisen, Natasha Lyonne, and Nick Kroll. In segments that felt both meandering and magnetic, Torres engaged them in performative exercises inspired by “experiments” he’d been posting on Instagram: for Kroll, the art of “hand acting”; for Lyonne, imagining the personalities of different colors. “I’m not gonna tell jokes to a Webcam,” Torres says. “The only way it felt natural was to acknowledge the medium instead of fighting against it.” The show didn’t just elevate Torres’s profile; it also raised more than $60,000 in aid for undocumented workers, a cause Torres (who came to the U.S. from El Salvador ten years ago) felt especially important during COVID-19 times.
The Dancer: Tiler Peck
Tiler Peck had no idea how Instagram Live worked when, on March 16, she decided to record herself doing a ballet class. “I remember pushing the button and saying, ‘Hey guys, I’m just gonna give myself class—let’s give this a shot,’” the New York City Ballet principal dancer recalls. “I figured maybe 20 people would take class with me.” Twenty-four hours later, the video Peck had posted from her parents’ house in California had amassed 15,000 views, and she started receiving messages from other dancers imploring her to keep teaching. Months into the pandemic, Peck and her daily #turnitoutwithtiler classes have become essential viewing for dancers of all abilities around the globe. “I’d never be able to reach dancers in Australia, Turkey, Iran.” Peck says. “What gets me up every day is knowing how many people I have counting on me to give them some structure and happiness for an hour.” Each class features a range of combinations at both beginner and advanced levels, plus an appearance by a special guest star—a diverse group including some Peck knew pre-COVID-19 (like pianist Jon Batiste and actor Leslie Odom Jr.) and others who emerged as fans when she cold-emailed them to appear on Instagram Live, like Josh Groban, who sang for her students. “Ballerinas are sometimes put on a pedestal, like we’re untouchable, and it’s so not the case,” she says. “With these classes, the audience is seeing me as a person. I hope that’s what’s captivating them.”
The Writer-Activist: Brandon Kyle Goodman
Brandon Kyle Goodman had no trouble staying busy when the pandemic began: A staff writer for the acclaimed animated Netflix series Big Mouth who’s also voicing a character on its next season, he was occupied with daily pitch, rewrite, and table-read sessions on Zoom. Then one afternoon on his lunch break, he saw the video of George Floyd’s killing—and his sense of purpose immediately changed. Two days later, Goodman posted a raw, unscripted yet calm and eloquent video on Instagram— intended just for his roughly 3,500 followers—that addressed the crisis in the country and his personal connection to it as a queer Black man. At the time, “I wasn’t calling myself an activist—just a Black man in this country expressing that something needs to change,” Goodman recalls. “As more people found it, I realized, I’m gonna own this badge. I can use my skills as a writer and performer to educate and talk about the emotional side of activism.” The video went viral—it has now reached 1.3 million views—while Goodman’s follower count has jumped to more than 122,000. His subsequent posts have addressed a range of subjects, from Juneteenth to his experience as half of an interracial marriage. “I’m interested in having thoughtful conversations,” Goodman says. “As long as y’all are here, we’re just going to keep talking.”
The Actor: Josh Gad
Josh Gad has a Tony nomination (The Book of Mormon) and an impressive film résumé. Still, his voice may be better known than his face, thanks to his role as jolly snowman Olaf in the Frozen movies. But with an ambitious idea, Gad has made himself a familiar presence on screens across the nation during the pandemic. He created Reunited Apart, a YouTube series that brings together the casts and creative teams of his favorite childhood movies—such as The Goonies, Ghostbusters, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy—for rollicking, heartwarming Zoom parties.
“The idea of reuniting casts from some of my favorite films is something that always seemed fun to me but, up until the events of the past few months, didn’t feel essential,” Gad says. “However, at a time when so many people are in need of a smile, it made sense to finally see this kernel of a concept all the way through.” As host,he has all the joy of a fanboy yet never gets in the way of his beloved guests, letting them relive favorite moments from production, reenact iconic line readings, and just catch up—all while raising thousands for charities with each installment. “I hoped and intended to create something that felt personal and authentic and potentially allowed others to not only celebrate nostalgia in its rawest form but hopefully pay that forward,” Gad says. After a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off reunion, Gad plans to take some time off himself. But he’s still got a bucket list of reunions in mind (Pulp Fiction or Coming to America, anyone?)—and he’s willing to film more as long as the money he raises can be of use.