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Stagehands, entertainers stage rally to call for targeted relief for struggling live events industry

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Live performance art met activism Monday afternoon as entertainers, artists and stagehands rallied to raise awareness of the coronavirus pandemic’s outsized and unrelenting impact on the live events industry.

The group of nearly 100 demonstrators pushed backstage equipment carts – unused since mid-March – through the streets of downtown Indianapolis.

They gathered in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and arranged the carts in giant letters to spell out S-O-S: “Save Our Stages.”

“The entertainment industry is shut down almost entirely,” said Joanne Sanders, vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE).

Restaurants can move tables apart and seat people outdoors. Malls can limit shoppers and spread out lines. But large-scale events are, by definition, largely incompatible with pandemic restrictions. 

Mingling with strangers is often a key feature of conventions, conferences, concerts, festivals and other events halted by the pandemic.

At least 330 Indianapolis conventions were canceled this year over coronavirus concerns, resulting in more than $600 million in lost revenue, according to Visit Indy, the city’s tourism destination management organization.

The convention cancellations also delivered a blow to downtown businesses and hospitality workers that rely on the influx of travelers and attendees to sustain their livelihoods. More than half of the estimated 83,000 Indianapolis workers whose paychecks are dependent on tourism remain out of work, according to Visit Indy.

Mayor Joe Hogsett joined Monday’s rally and acknowledged Indianapolis was uniquely impacted by the shutdown of live venues, but defended the local policies that barred large-scale events.

“The cancellation of these events was the only responsible, science-driven, data-driven, health-related decision to make,” Hogsett told News 8. 

Demonstrators called on Congress to pass another stimulus package with targeted relief for artists, entertainers and live events professionals.

Allen Story, a demonstrator who worked in the live events industry for 27 years, was preparing for commencement season when the pandemic hit.

He hasn’t worked since March 19.

“The extra $600 a week [in enhanced unemployment benefits] was a godsend,” Story said. “That’s what got us through.”

He and his wife dipped into their savings when the enhanced weekly benefits ended. They feared they wouldn’t have enough money to hold out until a coronavirus vaccine was widely available. 

Story considered a career change but said he received no offers after sending out more than 50 resumes.

“[Live events professionals] aren’t getting enough attention,” he said. “It’s because we’re behind the scenes. Nobody sees us. We’re the first ones in and the last out at every gig. Every show that you see, our job is not to be seen.”

Sanders and other union leaders urged lawmakers to hear the voices of unseen Hoosiers who enrich lives with art, entertainment and culture.

“Help us send a clear message to the Senate that without federal assistance, small businesses that make tourism and conventions a success will not survive this downturn,” Sanders said.

U.S. Sen. Todd Young “has been advocating since May for the passage of his bipartisan RESTART Act, which would help exactly this group,” a spokesperson for the Republican senator said in an emailed statement to News 8.

The legislation would provide “long-term, partially forgivable working capital loans based on revenue decline for the businesses hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and government-mandated closures,” the statement said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Braun did not immediately respond to requests for comment.