I was working at The Stranger’s calendar department, an insanely dedicated group of five upbeat young womxn, when the COVID-19 pandemic stopped feeling abstract. In a normal week, we would post hundreds, even thousands of descriptions of events happening around the city. In February, we kept doing our job, which was to try to capture nearly every public event in Seattle — every drag show, play, concert, gallery reception, film screening, beer release and stand-up act. But in March, it became clear that our mission was changing.
We had already been attaching caveats to every page with (what were then) the state’s COVID-19 recommendations. Increasingly, however, our time was taken up by marking cancellations and postponements. The biggest performances and conventions succumbed first, even before Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation banning gatherings of over 250 people. By the end of the second week of March, the only thing we could do was keep up with the mass evaporation of Seattle’s cultural public life, everywhere from tiny house galleries to the Moore Theatre.
The week before I got temporarily laid off — along with 17 of my coworkers — was a scramble to keep pace with every new, depressing development. I was grateful for the distraction as I worked from home.
Then, the call came. My boss sounded distraught. The Stranger’s revenue model depended heavily on advertising from venues and restaurants. We were collateral damage in the necessary but painful war on the spread of infection.
To me, the loss of work, which included a postponed Comic-Con panel and an improv show, was less devastating than the apparent near-instantaneous disappearance of Seattle’s vital but embattled arts scenes. The last year had been cruel enough already: the Pocket Theater, beloved by fringe playwrights and improv/sketch comedians, buckled under its rent; the superb Mariane Ibrahim Gallery moved to Chicago; the queer institution and music/theater venue Re-bar learned its building was being sold.
Now, with the COVID-19 shutdown, dozens of my friends were suddenly left behind. In many cases, they lost both their service-industry day jobs as well as their weekly or monthly performance gigs. Under normal circumstances, how many people can possibly live off their art in a town where a one-bedroom apartment costs $1,300 or more?
And, economic resourcefulness can only go so far in a pandemic. According to the small-business scheduling service Homebase, 52 percent fewer businesses than usual were open in Seattle as of March 28, while a stunning 66 percent fewer hourly workers were on the job (67 percent fewer in the food and drink industry, 92 percent fewer in personal care).
It’s tempting to curl into a ball and hibernate until this is over. But artists are responding with the desire to keep the city’s creative blood pumping, even as we’re all cloistered. As I type this late on a Sunday night, Re-bar is hosting a live streaming dance party. Every week, comedy producer and self-proclaimed “mustache wizard” Emmett Montgomery continues to host the long-running Magic Hat cabaret — not at the Rendezvous but from various living rooms and basements. Two of my favorite arthouse movie theaters, the Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion Cinema, are streaming new releases like the Portuguese masterpiece “Vitalina Varela” and the Chinese thriller “The Wild Goose Lake.” NWFF is also teaming up with one of Seattle’s most exciting new galleries, the Black-artist-focused Wa Na Wari, for a virtual tour on April 1. Countless drag artists are putting together wild new looks for their webcams. Those of us who can are making this work.
Of course, one of the less dire dilemmas of quarantine is the vastness of the internet and its distractions. Should I spend my waking hours learning Indonesian? Reading “The Plague”? Giving up and watching every season of “The Great British Baking Show” for the third time?
Consider this a plea for you to choose local, even when you can’t leave the house. My former, and hopefully future, colleagues at The Stranger have a comprehensive online catalog of everything you can watch from home. Netflix will certainly survive this frightening time, but your artsy neighbors are facing daunting prospects. Please let them entertain you.
Joule Zelman is a writer, translator, improviser and language editor originally from New Jersey. You can find her on Twitter @vivapetronella.
Read more in the Apr. 1-7, 2020 issue.