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Behind every cultural byproduct of COVID-19 lies a creative person struggling with boredom, frustration, fear or all three. Ian Brown checks in on them

Watch: Musicians across Canada have pivoted from performing at venues to livestreams on social media, catering to families in need of structure and relief for their isolated children. Here are some children’s performers who made the switch.

The Globe and Mail

On March 23, the day Britain went into COVID-19 lockdown, the English actor and director Samuel West lost every gig he had – including directing London’s West End production of The Watsons, an unfinished Jane Austen novel adapted by Laura Wade, who happens to be Mr. West’s spouse. He took the news hard.

“An actor who makes their living working face to face with somebody and as part of a collective, it’s pretty hard in these circumstances,” he said over FaceTime. “You feel like if you’ve had your balls cut off a bit. You think, well, what do I do? And I thought well, I can still read aloud. We can still touch each other with our voices, even if we can’t touch each other in person.”

He beamed out a message on Twitter, asking if anyone had a poem they wanted read out loud. Today, Samuel West’s PandemicPoems has 100,000 listeners. It’s a cultural byproduct of COVID-19. There are lots of them. We’ve been ploughing through them like the addicted consumers we were until COVID-19 came along: the mask-making and knitting stretch, the orchestras-recording-from-home fad, the trend of posing as characters in famous paintings, the pantry-reorganization movement. The drawing and painting craze is (I predict) about to peak.

We can no longer go outside and spend money most of us no longer have, so we stay inside and consume the internet, desperate to find in our isolation someone who makes the world feel new again. This is the story of a few people who have succeeded at it.

Andrew Cotter is a freelance sports commentator on contract to the BBC. He anchored the network’s Olympic coverage in Rio, and his Scottish burr is a stirring if muted presence at Wimbledon, not unlike the Scots in world history. But sports are cancelled – and so Cotter was at home in Cheshire, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, deeply bored. Which is why he provided a colour commentary to a homemade video of his two Labradors, black Olive and creamy Mabel – “in the strange incestuous world of dogs, they’re half-aunt and half-niece” – as they wolfed down their breakfast.

It was a race to the finish. He noted the younger dog’s unorthodox tail-wagging, vs. Olive’s veteran no-nonsense onrushing scarfing, “tasting absolutely nothing.” Olive, the older dog, retook her title. Then came the “swapping of bowls at the end.” Ten million people have now watched the video. “People are willing to laugh at anything because it’s miserable in so many other ways,” Cotter said off-handedly over FaceTime a week ago.

His inspiration was a famous TV sketch from the 1990s of the World Stare-out Championship Finals, a non-event narrated by “the doyenne of commentating,” Barry Davies. “That was kind of the genesis for commentating the dogs eating their breakfast,” Cotter said.

The success of his debut dogumentary made him reluctant to try his luck again. “I didn’t want it to be the disappointing movie sequel.” Still, he felt compelled to try: his father was a TV director with a specialty in comedy. The first was action-packed, like rugby. The second, featuring the recumbent Olive mouthing a toy while Mabel eyes her enviously and awaits her chance for a grab, was more akin to golf, a stillborn sport of hand-eye coordination at which British announcers, who are not afraid of dead air, excel. I will not spoil the ending, except to say that the loser has no one to blame but herself. So far it has had 18.3 million views.

The terse hilarity of the videos, of course, lies in the total attention Cotter pays to the tiny moment before his very eyes--and what else have we got to amuse ourselves with these days?

On the other hand, if you are a sensation-seeking type, you might want to look at dancer and choreographer Ryan Heffington’s Instagram feed, @ryan.heffington.

Everything there is to know about him is on display in the hour-long Sweatfest exercise classes he stages on Instagram five days a week. The phrase “anything goes” comes to mind. He has 212,000 followers on Instagram, of whom somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 join him for his classes, which slip from yoga to dance to his set piece moves: the Used Car Lot Inflatable, the Happy Hippie, the Pretty Pony. With his shaved head, brush moustache, crop tops and patterned board shorts he resembles a cross between a much fitter Dr. Phil and a gay porn star.

But what makes Ryan Heffington remarkable is how emotionally moving his workouts are. Yes: moving. Maybe it’s his lack of repression – “I gotta live! I gotta love!” he shouts. Maybe it’s his tolerance of the free-form, or his canny talent for stopping short of exhausting his audience. People cry and send him notes and videos of tearful thanks. “It’s better than church,” a woman I know says of her Heffington worship. “I always end up with tears in my eyes during the feel-the-love-and-the-light endings.” All I know is this: your dignity does not last long as you transition from the Brush Your Hair Back to the Skanky Swim in, say, the privacy of your basement. And why should it? What good was your dignity anyway, in those old, dark, shame-filled pre-COVID days?

Garfield Ryan draws on the solitary version of the collective physical repression Ryan Heffington taps. Ryan, a musician in Arima, Trinidad, created, with his fellow band member Jabari Edwards, I Got Nothing to Do, one of the pandemic’s most viral dance numbers on TikTok, based on the days of the week. More than 312,000 people have since created their own TikTok versions of his dance, all over the world; a thousand new videos are posted every day.

“It’s so strange that all this support has come from other countries,” Garfield says. “You wouldn’t think that the days of the week would be so enjoyable.” He finds the success of his dance uplifting. “This has given people a chance to go back, to be creative. People realize how important life is.”

But there is so much music vying for everyone’s flittering attention on the internet since the lockdowns that it’s hard to know what to listen to. One thing that makes Meredith Axelrod and her partner, Craig Ventresco, stand out is their allergy to self-promotion. The couple, folklorists of traditional American music, gave an online concert after the lockdown cancelled their gigs for the year. The concert was so popular they now offer one every night from their rented kitchen, in front of their stove, with its bent exhaust pipe snaking out of the frame to the right. “Between us, we know thousands of songs,” Meredith told me the other night on Zoom. “It feels like we have so much supply, we’re happy to share.”

Anywhere from 40 to and 120 people listen every evening. Craig handles guitar and mandolin; Meredith plays piano and cello and guitar and ukelele and banjo. She thinks this is lucky. “I’m so happy and grateful that we’re not a clarinet player and a harpist.” She has a sidedoor sense of humour that matches her quiet but persistent charm.

He looks like Bob Dylan. She looks like a film idol from the thirties. She’s from Chicago, he’s from Maine. These days, they are stuck indoors in North Beach, in downtown San Francisco, “between Chinatown and the sea lions,” the universally known landmarks they use to describe their whereabouts. Lately, “it’s totally deserted,” Craig said. “You never see anyone.”

They find it strange to perform without an audience, without a live gauge of how a song is landing, but they do it anyway, hardly pausing between numbers. “You can’t calculate the reaction in the same way,” Axelrod said when I called – she seemed grateful that I had. “Not that there would be applause, maybe. But there’s no applause.” They don’t make much money, either. As is the case for West and Ryan and the others, there is no ready reward for their private creations, which is why sampling their wares can feel like you’ve wandered back to FDR’s Works Progress Administration program, which paid thousands of artists to do what they needed to do, and then recorded the results, in case that art disappeared.

Axelrod and Ventresco don’t even know what to call what they play – folk music, Americana, jazz, pop, western, swing, though it is all of that and more. “It’s a marketing disaster,” Axelrod said, and laughed. “But I find it comforting. It’s good for getting through the day. People send us messages, and the word ‘comforting’ sure comes up a lot. ‘Consoling,’ too.”

When she isn’t playing, Axelrod watches Space Time, a PBS show that contemplates such matters as whether the universe has an edge, or is in fact infinite. “It’s about what’s going on very far away,” Axelrod explained. “It’s complicated and yet I understand pieces of it.” She could have been describing life in lockdown.

So far, nearly 900 people have provided poems for Samuel West to record. He and his actor friends have laid down just more than 100.

At 53, West gets up early to record in his wife’s writing hut at the foot of their small garden (“for which we have never been so grateful”) in Islington, in North London. The only drawback is the Victoria Tube line, which rumbles close to their house every three minutes at rush hour, even with service reduced, which means recording must pause for a 20-second rumble. A long poem – he recently recorded Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey – can thus take a few hours.

The most requested poems have been American, Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and Wendell Berry’s A Peace of Wild Things, followed by a lot of sharply appropriate classics – Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar (“I hope to see my Pilot face to face/When I have crost the bar”) and Richard Lovelace’s To Althea From Prison (“Stone Walls do not a Prison make,/Nor Iron bars a Cage:), and even Elizabeth Bishop’s gorgeous One Art (look it up, I beseech you) among them.

“It’s throwing up a lot of brilliant poems I didn’t know,” West admitted, “including ones that really seemed to sort of bob into the spotlight. There’s an extraordinary Pablo Neruda poem called Keeping Quiet, which really could have been written this morning. It’s from the 1950s. It’s about the world having a breather, having a rest from its desire to destroy itself. It was a real comfort in the lockdown, actually, when I met it.”

It starts “Now we will count to twelve/and we will all keep still/for once on the face of the earth,” and later becomes more direct:

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

“It made poetry seem useful,” West added. “Not essential: it’s not mining, it’s not surgery, but it can help.”

Words, music, dancing: these are ancient human things. We sometimes get careless and call them the arts. Maybe when the pandemic is over and we are re-apportioning funds again, we’ll remember how important they were to us in a dark time.

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