Performers behind Plexiglas, masked audiences and spaced-out seating the new normal for comics
Comics return to a new normal performing behind Plexiglas for audiences in spaced-out seating
Nour Hadidi hadn't experienced anything like it since the Before Times. After nearly five months away from the stage, the comic played Toronto's Comedy Bar last Friday, the venue's first night back in business since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March.
Sure, she was performing behind a little roped-off barricade — nearly four metres from the front row. And yes, it's impossible to tell if the people in the crowd are smiling when they're hiding behind masks.
Still, she said, "It felt like the old days — almost."
As the rules around public gatherings have relaxed, standup is one of the first live entertainment options returning to indoor venues, and comedy clubs from Vancouver to Montreal are reopening, updating their businesses to create a kind of new, cautious normal.
Who's ready to reopen?
At Comedy Bar, which reopened Aug. 7, numerous venue updates and procedures have been introduced in the interest of public safety.
Among the changes:
Contact-free sales of tickets, food and drink.
Upgrades to the HVAC system's air filters, to bring in the maximum amount of outside air.
Plexiglas barriers in the theatre to separate the upper and lower levels of seating, plus around the bar and tech booth.
Mandatory masks, except while eating and drinking.
Performances are limited to just one of their two stages, with tickets sold by the table, for pairs or groups of four. And that main showroom space, which used to squish as many as 120 people together, now maxes out at 44 guests. Under Ontario's Stage 3 rules, indoor gatherings are capped at 50 people.
Depending on the region, the restrictions differ, if only just a little.
In Winnipeg, Rumor's Restaurant and Comedy Club reopened June 2. This time last year, it would have packed more than 200 into a show. Now, to adhere to physical distancing rules, it's running at 40 per cent capacity.
In Alberta, indoor performances can play to as many as 100 people, so long as everyone's spaced two metres apart. The Edmonton and Calgary locations of Yuk Yuk's have been back in operation since July. Their 270-seat rooms now hold around 85 physically distanced comedy fans.
But even when the provincial rules technically permit a club to put on a show, actually making it happen is a whole other matter, and several businesses aren't quite ready to return.
With 11 locations around the country, the Yuk Yuk's chain is on both sides of that split. Several of its franchises are staying dark for the foreseeable future. Its venues in Niagara Falls and London, Ont., are attached to Fallsview Casino and Gateway Casinos London respectively. Since the Stage 3 rules limit 50 people to an entire casino, reopening's a no-go.
Its Halifax club will also remain closed. Typically, the chain shuttles talent around the country, but Nova Scotia requires out-of-province visitors to do a 14-day quarantine.
Mark Breslin, the company's co-founder and CEO, said it could, theoretically, start recruiting local talent, but it'd be a gamble.
"We don't have a big regional talent pool," he said of Halifax. "It would get exhausted after three weeks."
The B.C. locations, in Vancouver and Abbotsford, are also staying shut. "My franchisee just says nope," said Breslin. They don't want to open if they're just going to lose money, he said. "So we're just waiting that out, I guess."
Making sense of the regional rules
So far, the wait's resulted in casualties. Yuk Yuk's was forced to lay off the majority of its head office staff, said Breslin.
"In March, I had no company whatsoever. Now, we are kind of climbing back inch by inch."
Navigating provincial guidelines has been an ever-evolving puzzle, he said, with some restrictions proving a bigger threat to the bottom line than others.
Breslin said Ontario's approach, for example, has been a blow to their larger venues. Most of their clubs fit 200 to 300 people, he said, but the Stage 3 rules limit crowds to 50.
Nevertheless, the Ottawa location — a smaller space, originally meant to hold 150 — has been back in operation since the end of July. Clubs in Toronto, Oshawa and Burlington, Ont., are on track to reopen come September.
"We're hoping that all governments will move toward some kind of cap based on square footage," he said.
Even the stand-alone clubs have had their issues making sense of the guidelines.
"Comedy clubs are not talked about when every government is reopening certain phases because it is so niche," said Tyler Schultz, the general manager and booker at Rumor's in Winnipeg. The business might be classified under performing arts, or restaurants and bars, he said, which can cause some confusion around how to proceed.
In Edmonton in May, just as the province ushered in the first stage of reopening, Rick Bronson resumed business at his club, The Comic Strip.
Within days, Alberta Health Services shut it down, saying comedy clubs aren't allowed under the Stage 1 rules. Restaurants and bars had the go-ahead, however, and were free to resume table service at a 50 per cent capacity.
"We are a restaurant; we're licensed as a restaurant," said Bronson. With the help of his attorneys, he spent a month arguing his case to the province, with no luck. By June, however, the province had reached Stage 2, and the restrictions on comedy venues were lifted. The Comic Strip has been back in business ever since, and the 300-seat room now accommodates 100.
"We wanted to get back to some sense of normalcy as soon as possible," said Bronson.
But for a lot of clubs, his included, relaunch comes down to a matter of basic survival.
The 'money was running out'
"The fact of the matter is, if we don't generate some revenue, we'll close," said Gary Rideout Jr., co-founder and artistic director at Comedy Bar in Toronto.
"We'd been working on this [reopening] for months, just waiting to hear what the government plan was."
In that time, he was able to receive a loan through the Canada emergency commercial rent assistance (CECRA) program.
"We've used all the government programs. But that loan money goes pretty quickly. You have property tax and insurance and hydro and things that you have to pay, even if you're not open. That money was running out."
How safe is standup?
For the moment, at least standup comedy is one of the safer forms of live entertainment to produce.
"In terms of higher-risk activity, one of the things that comes up consistently is situations where someone is shouting or singing," said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
In those cases, loud volume is a concern. It tends to produce a germy spatter of respiratory droplets and aerosols, which increase the likelihood of spreading infection.
"Thinking about a comedy club," said Tuite, "it's probably lower risk."
Since the comic is the only person speaking onstage, they don't have to worry about keeping their distance from other performers the way musicians or actors might.
And if they're using a microphone, they won't be projecting their voices. "In terms of types of live entertainment, it's probably an easier [form] to imagine returning to normal," said Tuite.
It's probably an easier [form of entertainment] to imagine returning to normal.- Ashleigh Tuite
There's still the whole angle of laughing in a windowless room with a bunch of random strangers, of course.
"You have to think about how you do that safely," Tuite said. "And it's tricky."
"People are going to laugh, and so I think it's more about the setup of the venue and making sure that people are seated [so] there's space between the tables, and that, as much as possible, people wear masks."
Masks are typically mandatory for audiences at clubs around the country, and distancing rules are in effect. Some venues, like Absolute Comedy in Ottawa, have installed barriers to separate the performer from the audience.
Nevertheless, said Schultz, "the fear is still there." So the clubs want to help folks breathe easy from behind their PPE.
Spread laughs, not COVID
At Yuk Yuk's, safety's part of their marketing strategy. "We've been selling the concept that this is a safe place to come," said Breslin. "We're putting up pictures of people socially distanced. We're showing the staff in masks.... That, actually, is a better move right now to get people in the door."
Of course, putting the performers at ease is just as crucial.
Ryan Dillon, a working comedian living in Toronto, saw the pandemic vaporize his spring and summer schedule, which would have included his first trip to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.
It was the same for Hadidi, another full-time comic who had become accustomed to booking three gigs a night.
Both Dillon and Hadidi were onstage at Comedy Bar for its first Friday back.
"I'm just going to be completely honest, it's been absolutely brutal. A lot of money just disappeared," said Dillon.
Out of work for so long, performers are especially keen to get back to the clubs. "I've never had more requests for work than right now," he said.
Still, both Dillon and Hadidi said they wouldn't have played just anywhere.
"I wouldn't have done it if I didn't feel safe," said Hadidi. "Comedy Bar has changed a lot of the protocols that they have."
"Having people laugh, that's truly what I love about it, and that still existed among all these new procedures," she said, and the experience of being back indoors beats every alternative venue and format she's tried since the shutdown. "It was really satisfying to try out new jokes in front of new people — and real people, not just a computer screen."
Hadidi's done standup alone in Toronto parks. She's booked backyard shows for "bubble" audiences. She's dabbled with Zoom.
The clubs have been hustling, too, experimenting with new formats in pursuit of a Plan B. In the early days of shutdown, Comedy Bar began live-streaming shows, but the experiment didn't generate enough revenue to keep going, said Rideout.
The summer has produced a demand for drive-in everything, and there have been car-friendly comedy festivals in Montreal and P.E.I. The Comic Strip organized a drive-in event at the West Edmonton Mall parking lot.
Yuk Yuk's thrown a few, too — hosting shows in Kitchener and Ottawa. But none of those options are designed for the long haul, or even the winter.
The view from the stage
For now, though, what's it like to put on a show?
"The first thing you've got to do is acknowledge that this is weird," said Dillon, who performed from the very back of the Comedy Bar stage, per the venue's new rules.
"I've never in my life heard an audience laugh — heard the laughter but not seen their mouths move. And I swear it was the most haunting thing I've ever experienced in my life," he said. "It was like I was listening to a laugh track someone was playing in the back."
Hadidi loved the whole experience, even the awkward sanitizing of the microphone between sets.
"It was a high," she said.
I've never in my my life heard an audience laugh — heard the laughter but not seen their mouths move.- Ryan Dillon
But there are a few things from the old days that are missing.
There's no more catching up with other comics, for example. The green room's single-occupancy now. Standing at the bar is prohibited.
"You just kind of do the show and go," said Dillon.
And there have been some tweaks to the club calendars. At Comedy Bar, they've cut sketch and improv nights for the time being. And run times are shorter, capped at an hour to reduce the chance of exposure.
All over, clubs are booking fewer nights, and for venues like The Comic Strip and Rumor's, which traditionally bring in American acts, the closed border has forced them to focus on local and regional talent.
Still, the fans are laughing.
Is standup really back?
"I can tell you I was very emotional watching from the back of the room," said Rideout, thinking about Comedy Bar's first night. "The crowd was all laughing and I was like, you don't realize just how much you miss this."
But even in that moment — sitting in the club, laughing in the dark — the nostalgia persists. So long as COVID's a threat, there's no going back to the way things were.
"I think standup is back, but with an asterisk," said Dillon. "It's back, but only if we do everything we can to make sure that we can keep it safe for everybody."
Rideout agrees. "I feel like we're all in this weird in-between time," he said. "When we're back, everybody will get to be a part of it, not just the people who are comfortable right now."