As we reach week eight of quarantine restrictions in Victoria, the increasing loss to the arts is becoming more and more evident. As yet another theatre, The Burrow Underground was forced to close their doors yesterday and even the bigger players on the West End and Broadway struggle to keep financially afloat, the arts industry continues to take the blows in an unfair fight. So with the announcement of the AFL players returning to training this week and the footy season to begin in June, I wonder how and if arts industry will survive in a political environment that appears to place no value on the sector that brings in $111.7 billion dollars each year according to statistics from The Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR). This week I chat to Jake Matricardi, an usher for the Marriner Group on his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis unfolding in the theatre world.

Hi Jake, you’re an usher for Marriner Group which includes the Princess Theatre, Comedy Theatre and Regent Theatre which hold some of the biggest productions in Melbourne, how has COVID-19 affected your work?
The theatres were among the first to feel the real brunt of the COVID-19 restrictions. I often joke that we were considered an "inessential service" before everyone else! But it was the responsible decision. We were shut down nearly three months ago, and even before that there was an air of anxiety around what was going to happen to us, and no one knew, not even our higher-ups. I and many of my friends have been out of work ever since. Many of my colleagues also have other jobs in the arts industry, and those people don't qualify for Jobkeeper even if ushering was their main source of income. So everyone has been handed a pretty bad blow. We were initially told we would be out of work for four weeks, which has obviously come and gone, and the date we've now been given is June 30. But no one is very trusting of the government right now, so we'll see. I'm one of the lucky ones who does qualify for Jobkeeper, but my heart does break for many of my colleagues who are struggling.

 How do you feel the arts industry is coping at the moment?
I think the resilience of the arts industry is showing. I have attended play readings and cabarets that have been swiftly adapted to a new medium via Zoom. Many arts organisations are handing out extra grants to help artists remain creative at home. Artists and ushers alike have all banded together as a family which is amazing to see. However, there are a lot of people who are rightfully angry about how the government has handled arts industry workers, so expect those ripples to continue long after the restrictions are lifted. 

Have you seen any positives come out of the pandemic?
Certainly, people are finding all kinds of ways to adapt and still come together and be there for each other. For example, a work friend of mine has created a fortnightly cheesy movie night for anyone who wants to join, where we get drunk and laugh at bad movies together via video call. Little things like this go a long way in getting us through.

On another level (which may not seem like a positive at first) – the systemic errors of our society are more obvious than ever now, and hopefully enough people are finally paying attention to them to lobby change. To our welfare system, respect for the arts industries, respect for nurses and doctors, respect for retail workers – it's an endless list of the faults of capitalism that is revealing itself right now. I don't claim to be an expert on this, but I'm very curious to see what positive changes occur in our society now that so many more people have had to question things they've never questioned before, as well as having to deal with our less-than-ideal welfare system (which I've certainly had more than my fair share of dealing with in the past). I'm also excited to see the art that comes out of this from all media – I certainly have my own ideas.

How are you keeping positive during this isolation?
It's been hard, with no work and mental health and personal issues all coming to a head all at once, added to the fact that I'm an extrovert who is isolating alone for the most part. But I've managed to craft a loose routine each day, and I'm picking up old hobbies I haven't touched in a while. I've gotten back into yoga and music practice, writing plays and playing video games, all things that bring me joy that I had left abandoned for a while. All of this has led me to really reconsider what is important to me, and how I can find a sense of purpose and accomplishment in my daily life outside of work. I'm also learning new ways that I can look after myself and my mental health. I'm certainly becoming a more resilient person. 

What are you looking forward to most once the lockdown restrictions are eased?
I'm very much looking forward to going back to the theatre – like most of the ushers, I'm an actor and big theatre nerd as well, so it's my true home. You better believe I will be going to as many theatre and music gigs I can. I also miss socialising and dancing, and just human connection! I think we'll all be more appreciative of these things once we get it back, so I have to admit I'm pretty excited for whatever parties get thrown at the end of this, as shallow as that seems.

I'm also looking forward to how much more appreciative people will be of each other and the things they take for granted – I hope that there will just be more respect and empathy and love in the world once we're able to reconnect properly again. I know this seems very idealistic, but it's a really dark time and I just have to be an optimist in order to get through it.

To follow Jake:
Instagram @jakematricardi | Facebook - Jake Matricardi - Performer

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