The pandemic left many gig economy workers struggling to earn a living, but Shaw Festival costume specialist Truly Carmichael joined New York-based Erin Slattery Black to showcase the creative side hustles of theatre workers to help boost sales, just in time for the holidays.
BackstageBazaar.com is a free virtual marketplace built to cultivate the websites of art community members with existing ecommerce shops. The site features more than 120 Etsy shops and personal websites of artists and theatre workers from around the world.
Carmichael says social media posts have encouraged local shopping and promoted small businesses and artists, but posts calling for support quickly become buried in the sea of online chatter. Something more permanent was needed to help these artists garner more traffic and revenue.
“That works for about two days and then it's last week's news. And so, we needed something that was sort of more permanent and stationary, and something that could grow and pick-up momentum as it grew,” she says.
The site officially launched on Nov. 15 and Carmichael says the number of featured shops quickly surpassed expectations.
“It started out when we had 10 shops in the first hour. And now, we're looking at 123 shops in two weeks,” she says.
That number has grown to 126 by press time Wednesday.
As well as Carmichael, Shaw Festival employees with featured shops include Jo Pacinda with Jo Pacinda Designs, Laura Hughes with 98 Hearts Crafting, Tara Rosling with Little Green Shop and Judith Bowden with Sorrel and Stitchwort.
“The important thing is we knew that this was really to promote holiday sales and to be able to get people coming in helping all of these artists out. We needed it up in time for holiday shopping,” Carmichael says.
Slattery Black says the idea for the Backstage Bazaar began on a whim as she watched friends and colleagues lose their jobs due to COVID-19 closures of theatres and many facets of the entertainment industry around the world.
“I work as a costume designer in New York City and I teach costume design at the New York University. As the pandemic started, I felt incredibly fortunate that I still had a teaching job. And I watched friends and colleagues, one after one, struggle as they lost their jobs,” she says.
“I thought, 'How are we going to get them through this?' If we want live theatre at the other end of this pandemic, we have to do something to help the people who make their living making theatre weather this crazy storm,” she says.
Slattery Black says she was inspired by some recent graduates at NYU who hadn’t yet worked in the industry. Though they were all excited to begin their new careers before the pandemic hit, they needed to update their focus to meet this new reality.
“They started doing creative Etsy shops … It was such a creative use of their skills and talents on one hand, and on the other hand this is how they are paying their rent and paying their student loans back,” she says. “And then I saw friends and colleagues I've worked with in the field for 25 years doing the same thing.”
The goal with the virtual marketplace is to help the many artists and talented behind-the scenes-workers in the theatre community continue to live their passion and keep creating, while staying afloat financially through these unprecedented times.
The site features the shops of anyone working in any aspect of the arts and theatre industry, whether as artists, actors, stagehands, costume designers, etc., she says.
Slattery Black says one fear is that these workers may need to find full-time employment in another industry. If they are forced to leave the arts community to find financial stability elsewhere, their absence will be felt by all.
“As an audience member, if we do our jobs right, you don't think when you sit in that audience and let the story wash over you. You don't think about the thousands of people who turn on the lights and draw the curtains and sweep the floor and are back there telling the lightboard operator to make it dark so that suddenly we're at night. It sort of magically happens.”
“The reality is there are thousands and thousands of people on every show to make that magic happen for the audience,” she says.
“The fear is that all these amazing musicians, artists, theatre people have to leave and say, 'Well, I guess even though my passion is storytelling, I'm going to become an accountant, because I have obligations.' And then, when we as audience members are so ready to get back to theatre, a fundamental need of storytelling, there's nobody left to make it.”
This rising to meet the needs of theatre workers is built into the foundation of the community, Carmichael says.
“I almost never in my theater career, heard theatre people say, “That’s not my job,' ” she says.
“The other thing you never hear them say is, 'That’s impossible,' ” Slattery Black adds. “It's also kind of the way the theatre community works, which is part of what inspires us to give this kind of help, is that people in the theatre community will always help each other.”
And why do all of these theatre workers make their living in such an uncertain, pieced-together industry of gig and contract work, even in “normal times”?
Slattery Black says the answer may vary for each, but she's certain many would say the same thing: “I think you do it because you can’t not do it,” she says,
“It’s what I’d always rather be doing,” Carmichael agrees.
For creatives in this industry, shifting their talents to making and selling art in any form is a natural progression. Carmichael says many of these workers already had existing shops and side businesses to supplement their “cobbled together” employment. Now more than ever, she wants to help spotlight those shops.
Both Carmichael and Slattery Black create and sell items on their own as well.
Slattery Black, who has worked as a costume designer for “Sesame Street” at the Jim Henson Company, created a line of plush monsters called Lyla Tov.
Carmichael, who is the wife of Shaw Festival executive director and CEO Tim Jennings, is an award-winning costume designer and milliner. She has a shop called Truly Carmichael Couture Millinery.
Both of their shops can be found through the Backstage Bazaar, as well as the shops of many other artists and creatives from around the globe. Shoppers can search by item, shop, name or theatre if they would like to support the work of employees of a specific company.