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Crisis management and the virtual office

At Circa, we are familiar with crisis situations. Risk is part of our world, and one of the key elements of our art that enthralls audiences across the globe. As we traverse between 10 and 15 countries each year, complications caused by travel cancellations, extreme weather events and of course illness and injury are managed with efficiency, practicality and detailed communication. 

During my first trip on tour with the company, I saw a group of our artists overcome a blizzard that had left them stranded in New York. With emergency accommodation and transport managed by Circa teams spread across three different countries, our artists got to their required destination of Montreal where they delivered an incredible showcase performance to 80 arts presenters. One of the people on the phone and emails wrangling the logistics was Artistic Director and CEO, Yaron Lifschitz. At Circa, we all pitch in.

A few weeks ago, as we formalised a crisis management plan in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, I marvelled at the resilience and ingenuity of my colleagues and our company. I also realised that not only were we equipped to face the challenges that lay ahead, but perhaps our modus operandi could serve as some sort of road map in uncertain and isolated times.

Circa is a company that lives day to day with social distancing. With three to four touring ensembles and a regularly travelling creative and production team, our office is often a virtual one. Our tools of choice are Zoom for video conferencing and Twist for team collaboration and communication. We have an internal reference resource – a circa wiki – which details the ‘how to’ of pretty much anything that anyone needs to do. Our data lives mostly in the cloud, and though our filing system is far from perfect, one of the hallmarks of processes at Circa, is that making improvements or finding better ways to do things, is everyone’s responsibility.

Last week when the impacts of a global shut down escalated, our French tour was suddenly halted and our team worked quickly and safely to bring our people home. They arrived just hours after new travel regulations came into force, and half of Circa’s artists along with members of our production and creative team currently remain in self-isolation. At the moment, everyone is healthy and in good spirits.

Learning from our experience in Paris as the city imposed stricter protocols to combat the virus each day, we have moved almost entirely to working from home. Circa’s employees have been divided into two teams with balanced expertise across departments. When it is possible to return to our offices and studio in the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art, these teams will alternate time in the space to minimise the risk of transmission through the company. A few days ago these measures seemed extreme, but as we have all seen, the COVID-19 situation is constantly and quickly evolving.

Earlier this week we closed our Training Centre. This was agonised over for days, as it carries a very real impact on our casual staff of Circa trainers. Ultimately we made the decision to limit person to person contact across our entire organisation. We have asked our many loyal and passionate Circa Training Centre participants, where possible, to consider donating their class fees instead of requesting a refund. Many other arts organisations are doing the same with box office income. The response so far has been humbling with incredible good will for our sector under siege. We decided to give 100% of the donated fees to the causal trainers and were blown away by those trainers who have full time employment contributing their share to those soon to be furloughed trainers as well.

I spent about 10 hours in meetings and on calls today, with funding bodies, board members, our leadership and management groups at Circa and arTour, and in our first, fully virtual company meeting. In between, we worked through the reality of our road ahead and the economic impact we might face. We are a company with a low ratio of subsidy – over 75% of our income is earned through performance fees, workshops and development activity. We also have cash reserves in line with those recommended by Australia Council. The reserves might shield us in the short term, but this coronavirus storm is coming for all of us, and the question appears to be only when, not if.

Despite the sobering reality of the situation, at Circa we are still the lucky ones. We still have jobs for now – while our colleagues in the small to medium sector and many independent artists are facing far greater adversity and hardship. Our staff are generous in their empathy and spirit and continue to present ideas of how we can best support those who need it most. We are working on a number of strategies at the moment, and will share these with our broader community as soon as possible.

This moment is unprecedented, and the casualties will include loss of life from COVID-19, and far-reaching financial hardship. Today, inspiration might be more important than ever before. In normal times, I share three metres of desk space with one of our industry’s most prolific creators and integral arts leaders. Yaron shared with our company today a set of simple ethics that will guide and direct us in the uncertainty ahead. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but I feel more equipped to face the questions and challenges in the days and weeks to come with these guiding principles.

  • We will place safety first. We have a duty to reduce contact, to halt or slow the spread of infection and to take vigorous if costly actions to ensure we are playing our part. 
  • At Circa, we share the burden, equally. If there are to be cuts, they will be, wherever possible, shared evenly across the organisation. The virus doesn’t know boundaries and we are all in this together. Artists don’t come last. Everyone comes first.
  • We will be clear on the actions and the reasons for those actions. 
  • We will advocate on behalf of the sector. We will state (and restate) in every forum that the whole sector needs massive urgent help.
  • We will publicly acknowledge that the small-to-medium and independent sectors will be hit first, hardest and most savagely and need the most immediate help. 
  • We will be kind, generous and humane. We will help others where we can but we will acknowledge the limits of our abilities.
  • We will continue to make art. It’s the reason for our being and we will find ways to research, develop, dream and inspire until the time comes when it’s safe for us to perform again
  • We will connect with our company, stakeholders, audiences and sector and strive to inform and inspire.
  • We will be open to doing it better. We don’t have a global pandemic playbook for the arts. If nothing else, let’s learn, document and communicate.

Circa is based in Meanjin (Brisbane) on the lands of the Jagera and Turrbal people. We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the many lands on which we create and perform. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
Always was. Always will be.