Melissa Hahn had found a way to make it in comedy—not with her own punchlines, but by presenting funny people five to seven nights a week, at assorted Asheville venues, through her company Modelface Comedy.
“In February, I did the biggest show of my career. I got to produce a live comedy special for Bobcat Goldthwait at the Mothlight,” she recalled. “And then a month later, the world stops.”
The pandemic shut down live performance everywhere, the Mothlight closed for good a few months later and Hahn found part-time work at a grocery store.
She’s still at the store. But as North Carolina has relaxed some restrictions on a path to reopening businesses, Hahn has settled on a viable and reliable venue for her comedy shows—the porch and driveway of the home she rents in the Montford neighborhood.
“I didn’t want to just sit in a hot dusty parking lot in the middle of summer or have a lot of street noise, but still have something outdoors and convenient,” she said.
In a virtual summit hosted Oct. 13 by Blue Ridge Public Radio, Hahn and more than a dozen others artists and directors in local theater, comedy and dance spoke of the challenges, inventiveness and resilience of producing performances in front of live, socially distanced audiences in the midst of a pandemic.
The second part of this summit—Curtain Call: The Future of Local Live Performance—focuses on contemporary and classical music. The Facebook live event is scheduled for 7:30pm Oct. 21 on the BPR Facebook page.
“We have to pay rent and, so, right away, we got our team together and asked ‘What can we do?’” said Katie Jones, artistic director of the Magnetic Theatre.
Their answers to that question have evolved, from staged readings of one-act plays and special performances designed specifically for Zoom, to a pilot program of Tuesday night variety shows through October on the outdoor stage at Smoky Park Supper Club. Jones plans to continue using a mix of Zoom and other streaming video, along with in-person theater, even after North Carolina lifts restrictions of the pandemic.
“Is (watching over Zoom) the same as going to a play? No. But it’s sort of its own medium and there is a place for it,” Jones said. “A lot of people have become part of our community who otherwise would never have found us.”
Stephanie Hickling-Beckman, founding director of Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective, said she won’t present theater through the “Hollywood Squares” effect of Zoom, but plans to continue video streams of spoken-word performances until her company can begin mounting full productions again.
Her company produced an evening of spoken word called “While Black” in response to the police killing of George Floyd and the heightened Black Live Matter movement. The production reached audiences beyond Asheville, Hickling-Beckman said, adding that it raised $800 for the local youth development nonprofit My Daddy Taught Me That.
“Personally, I was just refusing to give up. My main thought was continuing to do theater,” she said. “I’m holding firm to what theater really means, (but) this is forcing us to be more expansive in our thoughts.”
In September, NC Stage partnered with two companies elsewhere in North Carolina to present three weeks of performances of “Blood Done Sign My Name,” a solo play written and performed by Mike Wiley of Raleigh. The novelty: while audiences watched over Zoom, Wiley, on stage at the Clayton Center Auditorium, in Clayton, N.C., could see each face and name in the virtual audience, in real time, through large monitors placed a few rows in front of him.
It was a costly production that smaller companies couldn’t easily replicate, but for Michelle Carello, associate artistic director of NC Stage, it brought livestreamed theater to a new level of intimacy.
“It’s breaking that wall, so you can’t just sit back and check out. You need to engage,” she said. “The minute Mike Wiley called out somebody by name, you felt the whole room (contract).”
Improv comedy, by its nature, depends more than traditional theater upon the energy of an audience. Tom Chalmers and his troupe, Reasonably Priced Babies, continued monthly performances through the pandemic, but stopped using Zoom as a platform after August. The company produced two shows with limited, masked and socially distanced audiences at Ambrose West, but is now looking for another venue since that building has closed and been listed for sale.
“There was such a difference in the quality of improv when you’re all in the same space instead of shouting at a monitor,” Chalmers said.
Dance ensembles are particularly challenged in a socially distanced environment, and no thread of it more so than ballet, for the foundation of body contact. The professional, summer-only company Terpsicorps losts its entire 2020 season. Two of its dancers, Vanessa Owen and Gavin Stewart, who have their own company, embraced the moment. They replaced their ballet shoes with sneakers and, with permission, took to the expansive parking lot of the Asheville Outlets for a July 31, daytime performance. People of all ages watched from their lawn chairs.
“That parking lot is about four times the size of the Wortham (Center for the Performing Arts) and it was on an incline,” Owen said. “I think we were all so desperate and excited to be dancing at all, and somehow we did it.”
Susan Collard, who founded Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre nearly 40 years ago and runs it with her husband, Giles, is keeping her company going by hosting informal improvisational sessions every Sunday afternoon while developing work for solo dancers.
“It’s called adapting. You have to adapt to the situation,” Collard said. “I’ve discovered by posting these posts on Facebook with friends, we’re creating a much larger dance audience. We want people to see what we do, and it’s hard to get them into the theater, so now we’re going (to them).”
Curtain Call: The Future of Local Live Performance continues 7:30 pm Wednesday, Oct. 23, on BPR’s Facebook page, focusing on contemporary and classical music. Guests include the musicians Mike Martinez (Natural Born Leaders), Ahsely Heath, Andrew Fletcher and The Resonant Rogues, leaders of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, Brevard Music Center, Pan Harmonia and Asheville Choral Society, and managers of the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, the Orange Peel/Rabbit Rabbit and the Grey Eagle.