It was St Patrick’s Day 2020, and lighting technician David Silvester was backstage at Melbourne University’s Union House, working on a production of Oedipus Schmoedipus, a “comedy bloodbath” of death “as portrayed in the world’s great theatre classics”.
But then the show was itself suddenly dead in the water. More than a year on, Mr Silvester vividly recalls the production manager walking in and announcing “show’s cancelled”.
“It simply stopped. It was like a cliff”.
Along with the rest of the crew, Mr Silvester was abruptly stood down when the pandemic pulled the plug on the arts and entertainment sector in Australia’s cultural capital.
At 29, Mr Silvester was hitting his straps in Melbourne’s thriving live events scene. After completing a bachelor degree at the prestigious Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in lighting, he’d clocked up gigs including major concerts for the likes of Pink and Coldplay. He’d worked major festivals and boutique shows, lighting Bob Dylan at the Forum Theatre.
Around 600,000 Australians work in the arts and entertainment sector, and one in five of them – like Mr Silvester – found themselves on JobKeeper payments when the pandemic hit.
And they were the lucky ones. Many didn’t qualify, despite pleas from across the sector to open up access to the payment to short-term casuals and contract workers, but Mr Silvester did because he was on the books with a production company.
While some arts organisations have received financial assistance from government via various rescue packages, many backstage crew like Mr Silvester were almost entirely dependent on JobKeeper. He initially received $1500 a fortnight, which dropped by half when the scheme was adjusted in September.
How that compares to what he might have earned in an ordinary working year is hard to say, he says, given the vagaries of his industry.
There is “no way” his gigs were going to return anytime soon, Mr Silvester says. It’s not just a question of lifting restrictions. The industry turns on public confidence and return on investment.
Even with the pandemic largely under control in Australia, companies and organisations are still reluctant to plan new events due to the risk of further outbreaks, he says.
It has profoundly changed Mr Silvester’s life plans. He’d been housesitting when the pandemic hit, and saving to get his own place. He had to move back with one of his parents, but that arrangement has “a finite amount of time”.
Since the JobKeeper payments dried up, he’s been getting by on savings and a little casual work. He’s grabbed any events work he can, but with the industry still in the doldrums it’s slim pickings.
“Because there’s not enough happening, it means that there’s only enough (work) for a certain amount of people”.
He’s aware that many in the industry are wondering if they need to give it up. “I know someone, she has completely exited the industry and she doesn’t look like she’ll be coming back.”
Others are trying to keep their hand in while taking whatever other work they can get. But he’s hearing that for some it’s proving “just too hard to try to juggle two different sorts of lives and two different sorts of ways of working”.
At this point, Mr Silvester is keen to stay in the job. To do otherwise would be to give away years of determined effort.
But as he watches others walk away, he wonders if he’s only delaying the inevitable.
Reluctantly, he has started a JobSeeker application. But it requires him to “apply for a crazy amount of jobs”, increasing the likelihood he may be obliged to accept work not suited to his skillset and nudge him further away from the job he loves.
“I did a year or so of data entry work, effectively admin work and by the end, I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t think I could be stuck in a cubicle.” says Mr Silvester.
“Nine to five for weeks, months, years on end. That would make me go around the bend”.
This is part of a special reporting series, ‘Life after JobKeeper’, co-published with The Age.