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Lifting up artists taken down by lockdown



“Performing artists rely on gatherings of people. So in a sense, they’ve been hit hardest by lockdown. Any way you look at it, they have no options,” says performer, choreographer, director and Fame Academy owner Vicky Friedman.

Friedman and other professional performers in Johannesburg – Lorri Strauss, Shelley Meskin, Talia Kodesh, Caryn Katz, and Sharon Spiegel-Wagner – say they cannot stand by and watch their contemporaries suffer. The group have formed Noah’s Art, an initiative to collect food and money for performing artists negatively affected by the pandemic.

“The needs within our industry are unprecedented. Noah’s Art aims to help feed as many performers and their families as possible during this time of crisis,” says Friedman.

In a moment of powerful synchronicity, Meskin happened to mention to performer and studio owner Jonathan Birin that they had formed this initiative. Birin said that he thought Glynne Wolman and The Angel Network would love to get involved. At the same time, Birin was organising the Saturday Night Unplugged webinar with Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. Within minutes, these various forces came together, and the webinar, which had an estimated audience of 9 000 from all over the world, became an avenue to support South African artists who are literally starving.

“Working in the performing arts is already hard. Most people are freelancers, and they survive from gig to gig, corporate event to corporate event,” says Friedman. “Add lockdown, and they are truly stuck. For example, you may be a dancer, but you can’t teach a dance class online because you have no data. There is a mountain of problems. There was one dancer who was losing so much weight from going hungry that his friends had to club together to help him even though they also had nothing.”

Friedman says that although everyone in the performing arts has suffered, those in the Jewish community have mostly been able to get by because of support from family, friends, the community, and communal organisations. But others aren’t so lucky, and these are the performers that Noah’s Art aims to help.

“They are people who we’ve performed with in hundreds of productions. They’re the ones next to us on stage, lifting us up into the air! We couldn’t just stand by as they told us their stories. We hoped to collect food for a few weeks, but then it just snowballed. We are so grateful that so many “ears” picked up what was going on. It was a huge surprise on Saturday night when Glynne handed over R104 000 from The Angel Network. We were flabbergasted. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. And then we were shocked and awed by the generosity of the community, which raised R200 000 on the night of the webinar.” One hundred McDonald’s vouchers were also generously donated.

The funds raised will go towards nutritious food parcels packed by The Angel Network, as well as food vouchers, supporting at least 715 families. Wolman says that they hope to raise even more. This isn’t the first time that The Angel Network has supported those in the performing arts, and Wolman agrees that the situation is “dire”. She emphasises that every cent raised will go towards food parcels and food vouchers. “The webinar was beyond our wildest dreams, in terms of entertainment and fundraising,” she says.

“These are skilled, talented entertainers. They’re not used to living in poverty,” says Friedman. “They have made their way very capably in the world. They are our friends.” Many people who work behind the scenes, from crew members to runners to lighting designers, have also been hit hard, and many small businesses have had to close down.

“The other element is that the arts feeds our soul. There is the emotional and mental implication of not being able to do what we love,” says Friedman. “This webinar made people realise the importance of the performing arts to us as a community. Look how we rely on performance, music, and the stories in movies and series on Netflix to keep us going during lockdown. So, people’s hearts just opened.”

Birin says he has been performing virtually for a year at the Mike’s Place Open Mic Night every Monday night, after the famous Israeli venue hosted musicians from all over the world to perform and keep their momentum during tough times. It was the inspiration for the SA Jewish Report webinar. Then, when Birin got heart-wrenching voice notes from well-known entertainers saying they didn’t have enough money for food, he got The Angel Network involved.

“I know an artist in Israel who has 90% of his salary covered by the government. Here, artists just starve,” says Birin. “And they’re the top names in the industry. If there was a major event, they would be the ones on stage. They’re so embarrassed to say they’ve got no food. And they’re not asking for steak and chips, they need an apple and some muesli. They’re like a forgotten tribe. But this community is so special, and the donations and comments came flying in. It’s amazing how a few small actions have led to this avalanche of goodness. And we aren’t even doing this for our own community, we’re doing it for others. Because that’s who we are.”

Meskin says, “We had to get on the ground and actually do something to help our fellow artists. They haven’t earned a cent since last March. They can’t feed their families, pay rent, buy basic medicines, or get electricity, airtime, or even water. The ‘pit’ is endless and deep. We hope to keep the momentum going. We’re just a group of girls who want to help, so thank you to the SA Jewish Report, The Angel Network, and the community for allowing us to do something. There is so much to be done. This has helped us to pick up where the government has let us down.”

Noah’s Art is also collecting non-perishable food. See its Facebook page for more information. Drop off items at: Voodoo Lily Cafe, Migali, Photogenic (Norwood), Bowring Levin School of Dance, JATA Johannesburg Academy for Theatre Arts, Stageworx, Andrea Beck School of Dance, Osrin Goldsmith Dance Academy, Jade Tannous Dance Academy, Rosenberg Dance Studio, Claire van Niekerk 5678 Productions, Joanne Bobrow, or King David High School Victory Park.

Donations can be made to: Noah’s Art; Investec; account no: 50016898206; branch 580105. Reference: your name.

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