By Marrett Ceo
For the most part, the comedy shows that comics love to perform in are back. To an extent. Still missing are the sold out audience gatherings in various locations throughout the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. area. Instead, outdoor shows and Zoom are the ways to go with showing an audience and allowing performers to entertain with their craft. Slowly and cautiously, comedy is coming back in the region.
Alexx Broidy aka Alexx Starr moved from Silver Spring, Maryland shortly before the pandemic to New York City. The constant traveling between shows up and down the east coast had taken a toll on the producer/performer, with his own production company, StarrStruck Productions. When he lived in Silver Spring, five shows a week went up or had a show at a local D.C. bar two weeks ago. Two or three comics attended the show. A hundred people inside, masks were on and social distance. Alexx opted to stay a couple nights and see friends. Roughly there have been three in a week in D.C. while he has lived in NYC. Lately, upwards of three shows in NYC total since the pandemic started in March, out of 10, four are good to have. Two a month now in D.C. One show he did, both produce and perform, one he is performing for someone else. Outdoor shows are mostly in NYC, barely anything in the door. Both shows were inside in D.C.
Back in August recently at the Arlington Drafthouse, a cornerstone in the northern Virginia area for live entertainment, Haywood Turnipspeed, another local comedian from D.C. opened for Seton Smith. Rather than the usual filled to capacity situation, one show had 30 in attendance, and 15 at another. Haywood has done another show in Sterling, along with a handful of others in D.C. and Maryland. There are many other precautions underway for the performing comics not there before Covid-19.
The Drafthouse, located on Columbia Pike is only a handful of venues open for comedy, music or any entertainment in the immediate DC area that are open to at least half capacity. The area has thriven on live comedy, shows usually have been every night. Anyone aspiring to get involved with the art just has to go to a show, see a producer or the websites where the producers get emails and make their way. It’s popular to an extent with comics who are used to doing these shows every night, sometimes used to going every weeknight or into the weekend as well.
Tim Clark, Owner of The Arlington Drafthouse notes the venue reopened August 7th, first day back, after being closed down March 16th, out of acting proactive, right before mandates/closures. In a venue that is typically 300 seats, now is starting off at 50 capacity, to keep distancing. The short term maximum is trying to keep shows to 85 people in the audience. Additionally, in keeping with CDC/local guidelines, strictly enforcing a 6 feet distance, all parties must have masks, 15 ft for performers from customers. Attendance numbers are fairly low. Mark Norman JP Seers big draws. Not a sustainable model for the long term. Still booking other talent, comics, that are kind of ready to get back on the road to travel/booked through the end of the year. Some widely known comics originally booked, such as Chad Daniels & Jeff Garland had to be moved to 2021 because of hesitancy to travel. Bigger names cause, agents and comics have been great through the process about working out deals. Very Difficult challenge. DC Drafthouse hasn’t opened up because of Phase 2, there are test venues. Under 30% capacity right now.
Starr has been producing/ performing for hows for nine years, never seen anything like this. Comedy hasn’t totally shut down, but the economy has had a major effect, clubs haven’t been open for six months. Similarly on a whim eleven years ago, Turnipspeed was walking past an establishment in DC where he saw a sign inviting guests to come to the open mike and tell a joke and he says that’s where his journey with comedy started and he’s been at it ever since. In addition to something he just always wanted to do.
Some comics prefer doing Zoom over live shows, whether it’s for a showcase or for a famous comedian. Zoom offers a better connection, safer, and a better overall connection than other connections. COVID-19 has definitely changed the game, and many comedians are ready to come back, but the lack of a full audience pre COVID-19 may be what’s getting in the way.
‘It’s just how everyone has to change the way they live. Life has changed. Just like with real life, some people resist and some people adapt. Some comics couldn’t and they just stopped doing comedy’ says Tiffany Harding, a Maryland native comedian. She resisted getting used to the audience not being present at the shows. The host would mute on Zoom and you can’t hear the audience. That’s good because you prevent crosstalk (people talking when you’re talking on stage) also prevents background noise, lag, echo. Too many cameras rolling at once, there can be glitches. She would tell jokes before, connect with audiences, now she does sketches, conversations, change format because of the new environment. Harding has even gone to the extent of getting a green screen since she shoots her set from her own bedroom, which blocks out her bed and her private details. It also gives her a chance to put up a funny background, related to a song she is singing or to her routine’s material.
The audience is a little wider now because there is no limit where the audience can come in from. Some viewers were in Arizona that watched her most recent show on Zoom. ‘Take the good with the bad with any kind of change, you just figure out how it’s going to affect your comedy. If you don’t, it’s not going to help me. The pandemic has actually been an unfortunate situation to contort to, but if you can your one heck of a performer.’
Even with some venues in DMV having outside shows or ones with social distancing, Harding is hesitant to attend and possibly perform. In the future yes, ‘I have a 9 to 5, it’s not my career.’ Although when things get back to normal, she would welcome the opportunity for comedy to become her day job. Until then she’s all in for just playing it safe and keeping everyone in her audience as well.
Clark notes that his venue has gotten overall a great response from customers. No customers have gathered in a cluster of the auditorium, no trouble, everyone follows CDC guidelines. Increasing shows rather than capacity instead of four shows with larger comics, changing to five or six shows depending on the bigger comics and their schedules. “Bigger names help keep us alive,” Clark mentions. On a staffing front, he mentions a low return of staff, many left the area, and couldn’t afford to stay in the DC area. Original staff, 6 maybe left, due to other commitments, 5 of them came back, others don’t want to return, part time or moved away. Clark hopes safety is understood as the number one priority but the overall hope definitely, is that these types of smaller shows and protocols will eventually get back to where the Drafthouse was pre-Covid-19.
“Everyone shouldn’t rush back into it, feel comfortable with coming back, we’re trying to provide a safe place that we used to six months ago” Clark says.