It’s Friday and that means it’s showtime for The Comedy Arena, the downtown McKinney comedy club that houses stand-up showcases and the ComedySportz DFW improv franchise.
The performers take their places to absolute silence as host Jared Berger, the co-owner of the venue along with Von Daniel and Gary Powers, introduces everyone to the viewers. He asks the audience for a suggestion for a type of speech such as a TED talk, a lawyer’s closing statements, or an Academy Award acceptance speech, something for them to discuss as they work a series of random slides into three or four minute scenes.
Each performer gives their best takes. Some incorporate props like glasses or a Coke bottle in place of an Oscar. No matter how good they are, they are met with absolute silence.
“So much of improv involves looking at someone in the eye or reaching out and touching them,” says Comedy Arena performer Sheila Rosenberg. “I’m a very touchy feely player I guess. I very often touch someone on their face or on a shoulder and I can’t do that when I play online.”
The silence isn’t an indication of the quality of the show. These days, it is a symptom of the situation.
Just like so many comedy clubs and live performance venues, The Comedy Arena has kept its doors closed to the public in accordance with city’s health guidelines to minimize social contact and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Some nightlife spots like bars and restaurants are starting to slowly reopen under the second phase of Abbott’s reopening plan, which was announced on Monday. But comedy clubs and other live performance venues still aren’t on the Governor’s list of businesses that can reopen.
“We don’t fit there,” Berger says, referring to Abbott’s guidelines. “We’re not a restaurant. We’re not retail. We’re not a movie theater. Even if the government says we can open and we’re good to go, that doesn’t mean that’s what we’re going to do.”
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The Comedy Arena has had to pivot to a purely online presence with its main-stage improv, stand-up shows, and some new concepts they’ve invented for their new online stage.
“We’re also improvisers,” Berger says. “Whatever restrictions are put upon us, we’ll make it work.”
The Comedy Arena opened in mid-2017 on East Virginia Street in downtown McKinney and 2020, Berger says, was shaping up for a good year. They were attracting a following of regular audiences and even overselling some of their primetime shows. They also started making plans to add a restaurant and a bar on the second floor of their building.
Then the COVID-19 outbreak started to make its way to the Western hemisphere. Berger and the other owners realized they would have to shut down the theater. They also learned that the theater wouldn’t qualify for the new state or federal emergency grant or loan funding programs because of its small staff size. The performers on the stage also help run the ticket booth, the concessions stand, the tech and the ticket booth during shows.
So they started brainstorming ways to move all of their shows online. They have some fairly popular ones: the weekly ComedySportz competitive improv comedy shows, the late-night and adults only improv show “The Humor Games,” and its stand-up showcases and open mics. The theater set up shows on Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, and offered “pay what you can” tickets instead of a set price for admission.
The online show platform also offered some new ways to try innovative comedy show concepts like Fibbers, a panel game show featuring other downtown McKinney business owners telling stories that a trio of comedians must guess is true or false, and The Virtual Slideshow and Tell Comedy Show, an improvisational showcase where comedians make up important speeches using a slideshow of random images and suggestions from its virtual audience.
Berger says they “dug deep” into the Zoom technology and used its poll questions and chat features to engage with the virtual audience in different ways.
“We’ve created shows for the technology that exists rather than trying to find the tech to make it work,” he says.
The comedy theater also came up with concepts for private shows for families who’ve been stuck indoors for so long. The shows help parents host family game nights and provide virtual playtime for imaginative kids with energy to burn. They’ve even found ways to innovate their regular programming by inviting ComedySportz theaters from other cities to perform with them online.
So far, the pivot to online has been successful even if it hasn’t completely replaced the live show experience for the theater and the audience.
Christopher Pettit, a performer and show announcer, calls it a different experience and points out it’s easier in some ways because he is performing from home but harder in others because he doesn’t have direct audience feedback. “At first, it made me self-conscious but I got over that hurdle and just accepted it,” he says.
Working in a virtual venue also gives performers the chance to explore and experiment for audiences since the feedback isn’t as immediate.
“One thing that’s nice is we can now use props or costumes when we couldn’t before,” Rosenberg says. “Last week, I was in a show and I used my husband’s rolling office chair to help me become a turtle swimming in the ocean.”
Things have also changed for the audiences from how they plan on attending to the way they watch the shows. Rosenberg says the laughs may not be as audible as the live ones but she knows just how much everyone could use one right now.
“It’s so nice to have something fun to look forward to at the end of the day to have other people besides the people in your house, if there are any or your co-workers if you have any to talk to,” she says. “I think our audience members have been receptive because they need a new outlet or something fun to look forward to.”