The Empty Stage

It has been an odd juxtaposition that the entertainment in which so many have found solace during the upheaval of 2020 has been crippled during the same time frame. The pandemic emptied comedy rooms, theaters, and pretty much any place where people congregate and collectively pay attention to something. The entire industry surrounding live performances has had to face some serious challenges. 

Venues that played host to live events have been suffering nationwide. Seminal club Dangerfield’s, in New York City, which had been hosting stand-up since it opened its doors in 1969, has been forced to close those doors due to COVID-19. Even a stage that played host to some of comedy’s legends, and founded by Rodney Dangerfield himself, couldn’t stay afloat.

These venue closures are important to note because, for many, art forms become something truly special when experienced in person. You may be able to watch a movie or listen to a record and have a beautiful experience at home, but other art grows in meaning with a live audience. A relationship is developed between, say, a standup comedian when jokes deliver particular poignancy or receive a raucous laugh. It’s just not the same if you aren’t in the room.

Music, theater, or spoken word are all creative endeavors that derive a heightened experience from the physical proximity and connection between performer and audience. But what happens when there’s no crowd to play to?

In recent months there have been attempts to recreate the live experience—or at least fill the void. Virtual shows via online portals have become fairly common. Comedian Patton Oswalt is doing standup from his living room, sans audience, through a virtual streaming service called On Location Live. Fans were able to watch the aptly named special At Arm’s Length for $15, which included a Q&A after the show.

Veteran standup comedian Bert Kreischer found a way to scratch the performance itch and get back on stage in front of an audience—in front of a vehicle-bound audience, that is. The comedian, known for his shirtless performances and anecdotes involving the Russian mob, embarked on a nationwide tour of the US that only played in drive-in venues. Audience members stayed in their cars and tuned into the show via radio. Not exactly an intimate comedy club setting, but an interesting experience for comedy fans, who honked horns where laughs would go unheard.

The bottom line is that the future of stand-up comedy, or any live art, is up in the air. There is an air of concern that things may never go back to the way they use to be. There may be far fewer chances for fledgling comedians to hash out their acts at open-mics or for up-and-coming musicians to perform new songs. The pipeline to entertainment success could be poised for a sea change. The pandemic has shifted how people interact with performance art as it is being consumed, and has caused performers to adapt to changing norms.

While few would argue that live events will never resemble what they did in the past, the way we have changed to accommodate the pandemic has opened the doors for alternatives to in-person shows. The world has grown more comfortable with a virtual experience when in-person is impossible or irresponsible. We work, school, and socialize in front of a screen—and this forced change has normalized a virtual substitute.

In the end, this may turn out to be beneficial to the performers themselves. If they can salvage the important aspects of the live show with COVID-safe alternatives, they can deliver fulfilling performances to a wider audience. A virtual option, in addition to the standard in-person show, opens the door to greater exposure and new revenue streams. Potential fans who may never have chosen to participate in-person can dip their digital toes in the water with slightly less commitment.

Performers will have to diversify their content offerings. No longer can they hope to find success solely from a stage, but will need to reach audiences from virtual portals and increase presence on social media outlets. The need for that authentic, in-person experience will remain (whenever they can safely return) but the value of virtual options won’t be lost.

Stages might be closed, but the show must go online.