Last week, Rishi Sunak’s misreported comment that people in the arts should consider retraining rightly caused widespread uproar. He has since clarified that he had meant across employment generally, though a government ad from 2019 suggesting that a ballerina should retrain in tech, caused widespread fury on Monday as arts organisations found out whether or not they had been selected for a DCMS grant.
For many workers who would ordinarily be earning a living in theatres, live music venues and nightclubs, which largely still remain closed in the UK, however, retraining has been a harsh reality since they lost their jobs in March. Countless creatives have already been forced to find other income to make ends meet, while a recent report found that 34% of musicians alone had thought about hanging up their instruments for good. Here we meet some of the people who’ve added some unusual strings to their bow during the pandemic …
‘In undertaking, you get to drive luxury cars’
Paris Rivers: SFX technician turned undertaker
Paris Rivers is on the phone from a cemetery in London, where he has just done a cremation. Formerly a special effects technician in film and TV, as well as a cabaret performer, he became an undertaker at the start of lockdown. Last week, he had to help dress the body of a man who had died from stab wounds. Even more shocking was seeing a child’s brain. “I’m doing a job that most people wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole,” he says. “But a lot of us didn’t have any alternatives.” Besides, he adds, “when people ask, ‘What did you do during 2020?’ I can say I was there on the frontlines.”
Rivers, 31, was “really scared and desperate for work” when Covid-19 hit and by chance, had a friend who was working in one of the temporary morgues set up at the beginning of the pandemic. After working there for two months, he contacted funeral homes to see whether anyone would take him on as a funeral service operator. He’s been transporting ashes, cadavers and coffins ever since. Compared with being on a film set, he says, the job is relatively “stress-free”.
“It’s strangely relaxing,” Rivers explains. “You get to go to beautiful cemeteries, wear a nice suit, drive luxury cars. Some people are shocked by the ick factor, but I started in horror films, so I find this fascinating. And how many people who work in horror films have actually worked around death? I feel this will be helpful for me in the long run.”
Even when the film industry starts back up properly, Rivers says, he’ll continue as an undertaker part-time. The job has inspired him in other ways, too. “I’m developing an Elvira-esque cryptkeeper,” he says of a character that he plans to bring to the stage. There will, of course, be “lots of black humour”.
‘We’d do a song and then I’d keep cooking’
Tumi Williams: Hip-hop musician, now chef
For more than 10 years, Tumi Williams has been programming gigs in Cardiff, as well as touring festivals with his hip-hop band Afro Cluster. As culture shut down over the summer, the group had to cancel their live dates and delay the release of their album. But it was live music that gave Williams the idea for his lockdown business. “My band headlined a stage at Womad two years ago, and the festival asked me if I could cook something, so I made jollof rice while we played. We would do a song and then I’d keep cooking. It was mad!”
There’s not much of a west African food offering in the Welsh capital and his dish has quickly earned him local hero status. But his jollof rice has a twist: it’s vegan. It started off as meals for mates but quickly evolved to a fully fledged service, delivered in person every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, growing by word of mouth and via Instagram.
“We called it Jollof House Party,” says Williams. “I didn’t have any idea I was going to be this busy over the past 10 weeks. Last Friday I did 15 meals in one night.”
He now plans to turn his home-cooked fare into a proper business, encouraged by his first festival booking next year. “It’s given me purpose,” says Williams, “because I couldn’t find any work. My missus is a musician as well and she went to work in Tesco.” They got engaged during lockdown and found out that they were having a baby – Williams received a food safety course as a Father’s Day gift. Which is just as well because his fans won’t let him have a break any time soon. “When I’ve dropped off the meals, I’ll get home and get texts like, ‘Please don’t stop,’” he says. “I get the same buzz from that as I get from seeing a headline act play.”
‘I’ll build a big, queer aerobics empire’
Carl Harrison: Dancer turned aerobics instructor
When coronavirus hit, the first thing contemporary dancer Carl Harrison thought was: “Where the hell am I going to get some money from?” The second thing was that he needed some structure to his life for the sake of his sanity. “Dancers are energetic – we’re not good at sitting around,” he says. “There’s only so many sourdoughs you can make.” But when a friend suggested he hosted livestreamed fitness classes, he knew he needed to do something different. “Suddenly, everyone was an online yoga teacher,” he says.
And so he did do something different. With multicoloured string vests. Camp Fit is a weekly livestreamed “gayrobics” session that put the “lolz” back into working out and in which he pairs sequinned shorts with matching tops. “I wanted to do a class that’s like festival fitness,” he says, “[instead of] a kind of punishment for drinking too much wine at the weekend.”
At the start, Harrison had a core fanbase of “Midlands mums and a few gays” but at the height of lockdown he had more than 60 people tuning in live every week. Classes are free with an option to donate and, as it started gathering pace and press, it began generating around £350.
When lockdown eased, Harrison started Camp Fit Comes Out!, a workout session in parks around London. “It was so nice to exercise with people because I’ve been [seeing them] through my iPhone for nearly six months,” he says. “Some of these people I’d never met before but they’d become quite a big part of my life.”
Now, he wants to “build a big, queer aerobics empire”. He’s started to take on dancing and acting jobs again but Camp Fit has “allowed me to have a bit of a voice as a dancer”, he says. Besides, when winter draws in, Camp Fit could thrive. “Maybe they’ll need me to get my short shorts, my string vest and the pop and disco on.”
‘I want to do sustainable kambo’
Maya Medvesek: DJ with a side in shamanism
Most of DJs’ income comes from playing in crowded venues, way after curfew, every weekend. Nightwave – AKA the Slovenia-born, Glasgow-based DJ and producer Maya Medvesek – had spent most of 2019 working on her music with a view to playing it around the world. But, inevitably, her tours were cancelled. “Everything crashed,” she says, but she remained optimistic: “These chaotic situations are really good for growth.”
She fell back on her degree in complementary health. “I always thought it might come handy one day,” she says. She also started learning about kambo in lockdown. Kambo is a poisonous frog secretion that is used in “holistic detox” rituals in South America. “It’s applied to superficial burns on the skin,” Medvesek says, who for the time being is practising on herself. The effect is an “intense purge” – in other words, you vomit – that “resets your immune system and is really good for mental health”, she claims.
Medvesek has been shadowing a healer in her home town and plans to use kambo as ethically as possible, as part of a clinic, where she will also offer aromatherapy, reflexology and massage. “I want it to be sustainable,” she says. “You have to work with [Amazonian] tribes to get this medicine and I don’t want to take advantage and charge £117 for a treatment.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that turntablists and alternative therapies go hand in hand. “Shamanism reminds me of the role of the DJ,” says Medvesek. “You’re there to be the medium between the music and the audience. And the shaman also meets you between two worlds and creates this experience.” She is releasing new music, too, as well as a fundraising compilation for the Amazon rainforest, but she remains philosophical about the future. “Maybe this is it for my music career,” she ponders. “I’m at peace with that.”
‘Both involve antisocial hours’
Christopher Nairne: Lighting designer to railwayman
A career switch from theatre lighting design to railway signalling has proved canny for Christopher Nairne. “Whatever the future of the theatre industry turns out to be,” he says over the phone from Basingstoke, where he is completing his training, “nobody’s going to stop needing railway signalling.”
He says he is not the only one who has caught on. “I’m told the number of applicants for positions has skyrocketed since March,” he says, as people from other industries have found themselves without a job. “Some are getting over 200.” It’s a job that’s “very stable”, he adds, as well as being better remunerated – “but that’s largely because theatre is horrendously paid”.
Nairne had some previous experience on the tracks. “I’ve worked on a heritage railway in Wales for the last 22 years, so it wasn’t entirely new to me,” he says. But he also sees the similarities between signalling and his theatre work. “Both involve antisocial hours and you have to be able to cope under pressure in a potentially hazardous environment.”
He’s concerned, though, about the way the media promotes an attitude of “go and get a proper job” towards people in the arts, without the public realising that “they’ve spent lockdown watching Netflix series that are all made by artists”.
“It’s a serious job and it’s a respectable job,” he says – just as much as railway signalling.