People have always said that the New York of the present is nothing like the old New York. If you compare today to just one week ago, that sentiment has never felt truer. Venues, bars, and countless other establishments are now closed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means live, in-person shows are a thing of the past for now. But many artists are adapting, putting on shows that are live-streamed or otherwise virtually broadcast. Anything from drag shows to intimate acoustic sets can now be consumed from your bedroom, provided you’re willing to tolerate some buffering.
Caveat, a multidisciplinary performance space on the Lower East Side specializing in nerdy comedic fare, had started making these sort of plans relatively early. The venue has a show called Doctors Without Boundaries, hosted by two comedians who are also ER doctors. “We had one scheduled for Sunday night. They obviously knew how bad it was going to be a little earlier,” owner Kate Downey says.
They’d already been livestreaming the show as it happened in the venue, but they decided on Tuesday that their upcoming show would be livestream-only, in part because the show’s working doctors may have been exposed to the virus while treating others. Once venues across the city started closing, Caveat opted to move their programming to YouTube.
Since then, hordes of others have followed suit. Brooklyn drag and burlesque shows like Mad Deep at Mad Tropical, Oops at The Rosemont, and Queer as in Fuck You at Otto’s Shrunken Head have done Instagram Live shows or have plans to. Tyler Ashley and Charlene’s drag brunch Baby Tea, most recently at Superfine in DUMBO, relocated last Saturday to a Brooklyn rooftop, lip-syncing and hip-shaking for Venmo tips.
Theater and cabaret venues including La MaMa and Joe’s Pub have announced steady streaming schedules. Musicians, with no more gigs on their docket (including large festivals like SXSW), have also joined in, with platforms like Artflow, a Facebook page offering daily live music streams by local artists, popping up to help. Comedians are even hosting open mics via video conference.
Alexia Antoniou, one-half of the band Gawain and the Green Knight, performed an Artflow livestream on Tuesday, noting it was the duo’s first endeavor of the sort. Her bandmate Mike O’Malley, an Irish musician who had lost several St. Patrick’s Day gigs, also performed a solo set. Antoniou said streaming was “overwhelming at first,” but she appreciated how it connected her with old friends and facilitated a more casual performance style than more formal venues would.
“It really did make me feel like I was around my friends again—seeing them hanging out and replying to each other made me feel more connected than I had all week,” she says. However, she adds, “banter between songs when you can’t hear a response is very strange, like playing a show to your stuffed animals.”
Sometimes these streams are more escapism, offering a peek into performers’s living rooms and more stripped-down versions of polished performances. Others are changing with the news: Mark Vigeant, a comedian who hosts his monthly Internet Explorers show at Caveat, had a show themed around the gig economy planned for later this month. Now, the show will more specifically focus on how the current pandemic is impacting the gig economy. Additionally, he’s created a new recurring show, Let’s Play Learning Games With Comedians, designed with the livestream format in mind.
This format also allows for a different kind of performer-audience interaction, since viewers can visibly comment during the stream.
“Some feedback we got is that people really enjoy the feeling of shooting the shit with friends,” says Vigeant. “It really felt like we were all collectively discovering what Twitch streamers have known for years.” However, he suggests getting help moderating comments—this is the internet, after all.
Some performers are getting innovative. Comedian Marissa Goldman put on a “Google doc quarantine party,” where various performers had an allotted time to add whatever they wish to a Google doc. It was successful, with around 100 live viewers. Another is planned for March 21.
But Goldman dealt with some technical difficulties, and she’s far from the only one. Charlie Bardey, who performed on Goldman’s Google doc show, had to reformat their entire bit upon discovering their internet connection wasn’t fast enough to handle it. Vigeant runs an internet-centric show and has been regularly livestreaming it for months. Even so, during the debut of Let’s Play Learning Games With Comedians, he had so many programs running he overloaded his CPU. When I tuned into various burlesque shows on Instagram Live, audio delays and fuzzy visuals abounded, and I wasn’t sure if it was my connection or theirs.
Vigeant notes this will be a trial and error process for everyone, but suggests approaching it with as much professionalism as possible. “Test it as much as you can. Run all the tech so you know how to handle it when you’re in the zone.” He also suggests learning programs like Open Broadcast System and Zoom, and familiarizing yourself with components of your computer setup like upload speed.
“GPU and CPU [aren’t] things you have to think about when writing sketches,” he says, but notes that such tech-y details are “so worth figuring out now, because it looks like this is going to be the norm.”
While some of these livestreams are done for the joy of artmaking, countless artists and venues are still going to take a major income hit due to corona-related shutdowns. While most virtual shows are free, many are including digital payment info. Caveat mentions their PayPal info at the beginning, middle, and ends of their shows, ultimately splitting the funds: 50% goes to the artists, 50% goes into a fund to pay their staff.
Other, smaller shows have made Venmo accounts, or toggle between individual Venmos as each performer takes to the (virtual) stage. Musicians and bands, like Gawain and the Green Knight, include links to purchase their music online in their stream descriptions. It’s helped, but may not be as sustainable as IRL events. Caveat, for one, can no longer make money through bar sales.
While it’ll never be the same as an in-person show—sending a Venmo doesn’t feel the same as handing some cash to a drag queen, and the energy of a crowded room can’t exactly be recreated at home—these streams have allowed for a larger, more varied audience than the typical Brooklyn bar or Manhattan theater.
“As big as my audiences are in New York, I don’t have any in the middle of the country,” says Vigeant. “But last night, there were people from Ohio, Toronto, Iowa, Georgia.” And on Wednesday night, West Dakota and Harajuku’s drag show Oops had around 300 viewers, exceeding the capacity of its usual home, The Rosemont.
“Disabled activists have been organizing via Zoom for years and have been asking for virtual accessibility,” says Jessy Yates, an actor based in New Haven who used to perform in the Brooklyn nightlife scene. “It’s bittersweet to watch people suddenly wake up to the idea of remote access as a way to facilitate community, as if we haven’t been encouraging it for years.”