Birds fly through high winds. Fish swim in stormy seas. And performers who are stuck alone in an unprecedented global health crisis will perform anyways, even if they’re jerryrigging their own lighting and shimmying around in a totally empty living room winking at an iPhone. As clubs, bars, and event spaces have shuttered across the US due to the coronavirus pandemic, artists from disciplines ranging from comedy to drag are dealing with lost wages and uncertainty in their careers by taking their shows online.
Last week, as New York became the epicenter of the outbreak, Cat Cohen became one of the first to switch venues. Typically, she does a weekly cabaret show at Club Cumming, the teensy, delightful East Village space owned by actor Alan Cumming. Her most recent show, though, was held in her living room, broadcast via Instagram Live. “I'm just so used to doing the show every Wednesday. It's an anchor in my life,” she says. In her performances, Cohen is a scattered, singsong glamor-puss, but in real life she’s frank and level-headed about how Covid-19 has made her livelihood precarious. “All my live dates set up for the next few months have been canceled or postponed,” Cohen says. She’d had a tour to Australia planned: canceled. Going online is now her best option for attracting new fans. “I hope as many people as possible can tune in, including people who don't live in New York City and don't get to come to shows like this. At least it’s an opportunity to connect with some of them.”
The improv and sketch performers of midtown’s Magnet Theater are also doing their jobs digitally, livestreaming via Twitch. “Everything we do is in person, face-to-face, so everything obviously had to be canceled,” instructor and performer Megan Gray says. “We have a very strong community, and we've tried to keep that together by doing jams and online shows.” While the shows are free to watch, Magnet is also selling tickets to fundraise for the theater while it’s shut down. One unforeseen and uplifting side effect of artists moving to a digital format is that their reach can expand: A man from Denmark joined a session recently, and another community member participated from Krakow, Poland, where she was stuck in transit. “It's not just New York we're reaching,” Gray says. “The scope is a lot bigger.”
Unfortunately, some comics still haven’t wised up to the need for social distancing. “There are some people who are still hosting open mics—live open mics. Not on Instagram, in person,” says Andrew Levy, a Los Angeles–based photographer. (Levy is the son of WIRED editor at large Steven Levy.) He’s avoiding those live acts in favor of helping comics document their attempts to perform in isolation. “I set up a fake stage in my studio, and a spotlight,” Levy says. “I put my phone on a stool, and I photographed the phone with people doing comedy on it.” The photo series is a striking example of art emerging from the outbreak, and a documentof the social adjustments people are making to stay safe.
DJs are also moving online to cope with the disintegration of in-person nightlife. Last week, Nitemind, a lighting design studio in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, hosted an event on Twitch in which each performer took turns playing records for an empty room, disinfecting the equipment and dousing themselves with hand sanitizer between sets. During the stream, each performer’s Venmo or Paypal handle flashed on the screen. “I’ve never experienced such tenderness and generosity,” says Christine McCharen-Tran, the founder of the electronic music collective Discwoman. McCharen-Tran was instrumental in pulling the project together in an effort to create a moment of happiness for a traumatized industry. “I have lost all of my forthcoming income,” says Katie Rex, a DJ who performed during the event. “It completely brought me back to life.”
Other DJs have been able to put on shows without leaving their homes. “The minute all my gigs got canceled last week, I bought some device on Amazon called an iRig that allowed me to pipe music straight from my mixer into my phone,” DJ Louie XIV says. He threw a “Stay in the House Party” and requested donations to help his community in exchange for his tunes. “I’m inspired, seeing everyone trying to come together in real time,” he says. “I’m just trying to bring a bunch of anxious, scared people, including myself, some joy.” He’s keeping the party going this Friday, using Instagram Live to encourage people to dance along from their living rooms.
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Drag performers, who often thrive when feeding off the energy of crowds, are being forced to think about working virtual rooms as well. “I really should have invested in tech, in doing VR, you know? But I've always thought that our presence is what matters,” San Francisco-based drag performer Vivvyanne Forevermore says. “Being together is so important, in the same space.” Forevermore has many occupations—in addition to her drag career, she is a freelance choreographer, a party producer, a show promoter, and an owner/worker at the Stud, the first cooperatively owned queer venue in the United States—and all of them are now threatened. “All of my jobs have been really impacted by the coronavirus,” she says. The Stud, which has been in business since 1966, is an iconic space, and one which has always been more focused on community than the enrichment of its cooperative ownership, which doesn’t turn a profit. “Our main goal is to keep it open so people can come and hang out and play and be queer and have a party and perform,” Forevermore says. “Being closed puts us in debt immediately.”
Forevermore hosted a live telethon on Sunday for the San Francisco Bay Queer Nightlife Fund, a new organization meant to help queer nightlife workers as their livelihoods are in jeopardy. She is also planning a few podcasts, including a personal, conversation-driven option and a podcast mining the storied history of the Stud and how its patrons weathered the AIDS epidemic. She’s hoping people will surprise themselves as they attempt to adapt. “I think that within drag we’re about to grow a whole bunch of new skills and perspectives and ideas about how to perform,” Forevermore says, “and so this limitation is really forcing a lot of creativity, which is super exciting.”
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The drag community has proven very nimble so far. Little Miss Hot Mess, a Brooklyn-based drag performer, has taken her popular story hour online in a livestream. RuPaul’s Drag Race has started digital concerts. Meanwhile, one Milwaukee restaurant is testing a delivery service helmed by drag queens as a gimmick to keep customers during the coronavirus pandemic. Across disciplines, the current outbreak is spurring some fascinating trends. Gray and fellow Magnet performer–instructor Elana Fishbein have been amused by how eager people are to use the video-chat window as a medium for comedy. “People are really into proximity jokes,” Fishbein says, moving toward and away from the camera she’s using for our Zoom meeting to demonstrate. “Proximity comedy is doing well!”
Most performers flocking to livestreams are raising money with their efforts, but some performers worry that fatigue may set in. “Patreon is a really good option for us, because it’s subscription-based and based on us creating content rather than a one-off thing,” Forevermore says. “There's this really beautiful drive toward raising funds right now. But for me, there’s a huge concern about what happens four months from now when our economy is completely tanked, and bars aren't hiring back. What do we do with that?”
There’s no good answer. The coronavirus outbreak has no definite ending on the horizon, and uncertainty defines the moment. As people wait to learn what the world will look like in the coming months, though, these performances are offering temporary snippets of fun, even if their performers can’t hear any applause.
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