Can’t Stop the Comedy: Performers Adapt to COVID-19

It’s said laughter is the best medicine, and while that might not be part of the CDC’s official guidelines, comedians everywhere are reaching out to audiences online, hoping for a little healing, some connection and a lot of laughter.

The Second City, whose stages are as dark as any in town, is doing its part to light up the internet three nights a week with “Improv House Party.” Anneliese Toft co-directs Thursday night’s offering, “Helter Shelter.” The 45-minute show is an interactive Zoom spectacular.

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“This is like a return to appointment TV,” said Toft. “We have anywhere from 1,400 to 2,500 people joining in, and they’re from all over the country, and from Europe, the Caribbean, South America.”

“Improv House Party” is all about joining in; audience members become part of the sketches. Toft describes the pleasure of getting a live tour of someone’s kitchen, and being surprised by how people present themselves. “One audience member showed up in a bubble bath. They were fully submerged, but they were in a bubble bath,” she said.

On Tuesday nights, The Second City offers “Girls Night In.” The all-female show invites audiences to “Grab your PJs, popcorn and Pinot Grigio,” so the cast can lead audiences in “sleepover classics like Truth or Dare, Girl Talk and Scary Stories!” 

And on Saturdays it’s “Scriptless.”

For Brandon Cloyd, artistic director of PlayMakers Laboratory Theatre, an arts education group that helps Chicago Public Schools elementary students write plays that the group performs in hourlong shows, remote learning has given the nearly 25-year-old troupe a chance to build a video archive of its work, something members wanted to do for years.

“We’re making a weekly half-hour version of our show titled ‘That’s Weird Grandma, House Par-Tay!’” said Cloyd. “It streams on Patreon, a subscription service, and it’s is available starting Mondays at 8 p.m., the same time we’d do our live shows for the general public. It’s only a half-hour because it’s a lot to make an hourlong video.”

“That’s Weird Grandma, House Par-Tay!” is fully scripted, shot and edited, unlike the Zoom-based Second City offerings. All that was new for Cloyd and his team. 

“It’s a true DIY. The performers shoot their own video and we edit it in a day. For the most part. I’m not going to lie; the first show we did some work on the weekend, but not too much,” he said.

PlayMakers has a total of eight shows planned.

There are downsides to this new era of performance, Toft says. “With live performances, the performers have control. Now we have to trust the server. If the wind blows, or Lady Gaga is having a concert, then the Wi-Fi is slow, cause they are all watching Lady Gaga.”

“If anyone asked me my favorite thing about my job, it was being in the room with people. Being in the classrooms with students always makes me laugh so much. I am looking forward to the time we get to do that again,” Cloyd said.

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