In these strange and unprecedented times, the arts and artistic community has never been more important. While we bunker down in quarantine, we spend the hours watching streaming services, enjoying movies, TV shows and screenings of live productions. We listen to music and read books, we complete puzzles of iconic artworks and we create. Every facet of our lives is influenced by the creative wonderful world of the arts, and those who work in these industries are struggling more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. At Australian Stage we want to shed some light on the performers, directors, art makers and crew who make Australia such an enchanting place to live. The magic makers that enrich our lives with their talents, through the darkest of times and find new ways to make us smile, feel and connect.
Welcome to the first in a series of interviews, Artists in Isolation – our first guest is cabaret superstar and front-line worker Zuleika Khan who shares her experiences as a theatre maker stuck in isolation and a nurse protecting the community.
Hello Zule, and welcome to 2020! Prior to Covid-19, can you tell me what you initially had planned for the year?
I had just finished Perth Fringe World and a little spot in Albury and had booked a bunch of stuff that would have made this one of the most lucrative and busiest years for me as an entertainer. It looked like I wasn’t going to be doing any nursing at all! I was set to do Newcastle Fringe and then Melbourne Comedy Festival, then I was going to be working on set as a nurse on a TV series. It was going to be fantastic for me as an artist to be amongst Australia’s best actor exports in this country, and all of this got wiped away in a matter of a week.
I had initially planned to perform at several other venues at the beginning of the year but I couldn’t due to the fires. It’s been a really strange situation for artists in general and nurses as well, we didn’t get a summer lull. Normally in summer people are generally healthier and go home for Christmas so hospitals are a little quieter, but we didn’t get that this year. Everyone kept coming in with respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and all the masks got taken away because of the virus. It’s really bizarre as it primed us for a respiratory illness to come ripping through the country so we’re very lucky we didn’t have a higher incidence of coronavirus in the country, especially in NSW because all of their lungs had been exposed to so much smoke damage.
As an artist it was hard to sell tickets, everyone was freaking out about the fires, people had lost their homes and others felt guilty about spending money because they knew that there were people suffering so badly in other parts of the country. This year’s been very tough!
How are you staying positive?
I’m a bit mad! It’s in my nature to put on a mask and make people laugh in the face of fear. Being a nurse and dealing with the fear of death is how I live my day to day and have done so for over 20 years. I come across as someone who’s very happy, but I have definitely had a couple of pretty big panic attacks in the past month. Mainly because I am quite significantly at risk, I am on the front line with people we are swabbing. Like everyone I’m staying busy with work and grateful to have it, but I think everyone is feeling quite anxious across the board.
You also have a creative release as an artist which must help you to focus on something else and relax at the same time, are you writing new material or working on anything?
Yes! I was early to cancel several of my festival spots before any of the shutdowns had come into place. It was a difficult decision to make especially as some of the festival organisers didn’t agree with me about the severity of the situation at the time. During that time I wrote a song about how I want everyone to stay negative. Don’t stay positive, I want you to be negative. I keep looking at all these wonderful people, all these amazing artists who are putting out content, they’re collaborating and doing all these wonderful things. I am writing behind closed doors but I’m not in any kind of a space to record myself right now.
You’re in a very unique position.
It’s weird, I feel weird. I don’t know how else to describe it and whenever I speak to anybody, I try to keep the conversation positive because that’s what I need, I need to feel positive. I think it would be very funny to write a musical called “Essential, the Musical”. However, I think I’d have to put some other jobs in there if I ever wrote it. I’d try to find some teachers to write with, cleaners, cops, fireries, Coles shelf packers.
I’m finding the content that people are putting out there at the moment, whether they be artists or not is overwhelmingly positive, do you have any favourites that you are following online.
I love Jada Pinkett Smith, I adore her and all the stuff she puts out into the world. She’s still got the capability to put out good content. I also love Ru Pauls Drag Race, I know it’s trash but it’s completely honest and I think it’s wonderful.
I think that’s why I haven’t been putting out content, while I enjoy having positive conversations, it’s not in me to skirt around deep issues. It’s in me to talk about very dark things and the reality of the situation we are in. I would be coming from a very serious standpoint. I wouldn’t be able to make anybody laugh, I just be reinforcing the fact that you have to stay at home and wash your bloody hands!
I also watch Self Sufficient Me, a vlog about gardening and I love it, it’s giving me so many ideas for what I can do with my own garden.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we’re free of all this?
Breathe. I’m very much an introvert and enjoy having my own space and have been feeling quite overwhelmed with how many people I’ve been dealing with lately.
What has been one of the most significant things you have discovered during this crisis?
One thing I have to say about the arts is that it is so important for our mental health. At the end of all of this we will have to look at mental health as an extremely important part of general care, because I think there a lot of people who have really suffered. People who may not have been aware of underlying anxiety or depression could have found this situation quite exposing.
I think it’s important to discuss how damaging this has been to our psychological and general health as artists. I have taken quite a few hits in the past three years and I think it’s important to be transparent and say that I have really been through the shit and had to pick myself up every day and reapply the titanium to my backbone in this industry.
How has this affected you as an artist?
I have felt incredibly depressed about who I am as an artist. I have spent time wondering if the arts was ever worth pursuing because all of a sudden all my gigs were ripped away and yet it was my other job was named the essential service.
There have been so many people who told me not to pursue the arts, that it’s not a good job and that I should be like my parents. When this all went down, the little narky voice in the back of my head kept telling me they were right. I think this is a common struggle amongst artists and more so now, because not only have I had these thoughts and had people say these things to me, but the government has treated me this way too. It’s like they’ve completely forgotten that all these artists performed gigs for free (which isn’t something we generally like to do) to help after the fires, and that the it’s the comedians, the clowns, and the musicians that keep the morale of the people up. We are so important. That’s the message I want to put out to the people, you are so important, don’t listen to that stupid narky voice, our time will come back again and look at all the material we’ll have.
Any final thoughts?
I just hope everyone’s okay and that everyone makes it through this with their mental health intact and that we all take care of each other.
For more information and to keep up with Zule, check out her links below: