Live entertainment spaces get creative amidst prolonged shutdown

Photo courtesy of West Nyack Levity Live

Live event spaces are still under heavy regulations eight months after the initial lockdown in New York state as a result of COVID-19 guidelines issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with lockdowns likely to become even more restrictive if coronavirus cases continue to spike this winter.

As U.S. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand and other federal lawmakers are pushing the RESTART Act to help the live entertainment industry, many New York venues remain resilient, demonstrating Cuomo’s long touted “NY tough” spirit in the form of innovative business and community entertainment.

In a virtual press conference in October, Gillibrand called for the RESTART Act to be included in the next stimulus package to help restaurants and entertainment businesses survive through the winter, as outdoor dining and entertainment becomes almost impossible.

“Live event spaces were among the first businesses to close and will be likely the last to reopen,” said Sen. Gillibrand. “Independent venues are forecasted to lose almost $9 billion in revenue if they remain dark through the end of the year.”

According to the senator, the RESTART Act would mitigate these losses with a new loan program funding 6 months of payroll and operating expenses, with additional loan extensions for businesses that have seen a revenue decline of 80% or more.

“Our recovery plans need to be based in reality,” Gillibrand said. “The reality is that COVID is going to be with us for a long time. During that time, some businesses will not be able to operate at the scale they used to, if at all. We need to help them make it through.”

The widely bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate in May of this year, but whether the RESART Act will be passed remains to be seen.

In lieu of government assistance, West Nyack Levity Live, Bearsville Theater and the Colony are three New York state venues that have each taken an innovative approach to business in order to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic and safely provide entertainment to their communities.

West Nyack Levity Live

West Nyack Levity Live is a Rockland County comedy club located in the Palisades Mall, just outside of New York City. Since its establishment in 2012, the club has been a space for comics from novice to A-list, holding open-mics for up-and-coming talent and also hosting world famous comedians such as Kevin Hart and Sebastian Maniscalco.

Photo courtesy of West Nyack Levity Live

Though the comedy club itself remains closed, Levity Live adapted to the event space regulations this fall by hosting a live, outdoor comedy series featuring comics such as Dave Attell, Rosebud Baker and Matteo Lane.

“Live comedy is our passion,” said Matt Tucker, the general manager of Levity Live’s West Nyack location. “With the majority of comedy clubs closed across the nation, we wanted to offer comedy fans a live show experience that was COVID-safe. The drive in movie format felt like a perfect solution. The comedian is physically on a stage at the lot and then projected onto a 50′ screen. The feedback from the comedians has been overwhelmingly positive. They can hear the laughter from the audience members who are seated safely in front of their cars and distanced from the other guests.”

Levity Live’s drive-in approach to comedy allows a live show to happen safely: Audience members order tickets online for a contactless entrance, follow social distancing protocols during the show, and wear masks when leaving their vehicle.

Currently, no future drive-in dates are scheduled by the club.

“Entertainers, theaters, and comedy clubs are an essential business, and we should be allowed to open,” said Tucker. “We can safely provide all the necessary guidelines needed for a safe environment for our guests, staff and comedians.”

Bearsville Theater

Photo courtesy of Bearsville Theater

In September 2019, Bearsville Theater was purchased by UK native and current Hudson Valley resident Lizzie Vann, who renovated the decades-old space and had just begun reoperation of the venue when the pandemic reached New York.

“Lizzie, along with theater manager Robert Frazza, had big plans for Bearsville come 2020, all of which were quickly put on hold when COVID-19 lockdowns began back in March,” said the Assistant Production Manager of Bearsville Theater, Carly Walsh.

Photo courtesy of Bearsville Theater

“The theater’s first response to the lockdown was a segment called Bearsville Uncut, which consisted of weekly postings of audio recordings that had been done over the 30 years that Bearsville has had live music. Some of these artists included Bob Dylan, The Band, The Roches, and many more. After a few months of Bearsville Uncut, we began experimenting with releasing videos, discovering that our viewership doubled,” said Walsh.

With the success of video content, Bearsville Theater shifted its focus from the Bearsville Uncut series to filming live performances at the venue, which are streamed through their website and garner income through online ticket sales. Upcoming events scheduled to live stream include performances from Tracy Bonham, Nektar and Lindsey Webster.

“Now, live streaming videos are our main source of income and you can imagine it does not level up to in-person shows,” writes Walsh. “We have faith that when live music is allowed again, we will have had the time to make Bearsville even better than it was before. We miss our beloved community, but are grateful for the resources we have to continue sharing music from the Bearsville stage, even if it is through a screen.”

The Colony

Since its restoration in 2017 by Neil and Lex Howard, the Colony has been a well-loved feature of Woodstock’s music scene and art community at large, hosting live events such as concerts, poetry readings and stand up comedy.

Legislative Gazette photo by Rose Felice
Tonus Maximus begins their set at Colony Woostock’s outdoor location as the sun sets on Halloween, October 31, 2020. The audience, many dressed up in festive costumes, watch the show from socially distanced picnic tables.

“The Colony had a very strong summer booked and ready and a bunch of sold out shows right when the pandemic hit,” writes Neil Howard, the co-owner of the Colony. “But we had to deal with the reality and the lack of clarity of what was happening, so we closed down entirely. It was very hard but was the right thing to do.”

In response to the pandemic, the Colony put up an outdoor stage behind the closed building and developed The Colony Beer Garden, where customers can watch live music at socially distanced picnic tables.

According to Howard, there are silver linings to be found in the way that Colony Woodstock was forced to adapt. The Colony has had time to develop the concept for an outdoor venue space, which they had long planned to do, and the outdoor venue space in turn gave up-and-coming local musicians a space to perform and reach audiences that they otherwise may not have been able to reach.

Legislative Gazette photo by Rose Felice
October 31, 2020. Signs surround Colony Woodstock’s outdoor venue as the first band sets up on Halloween, reminding visitors to wear masks and keep social distance.

“A lot of people came for food and drink and discovered great new artists they had not heard of and then came back to see them again and again and became fans, which is really great for all concerned,” said Howard.

On November 12, the Colony announced on Facebook that they have temporarily closed The Colony Beer Garden due to new cases of the Coronavirus in Woodstock. Provided that cases stabilize in the area, the Colony plans to switch from outdoor shows in the colder months to small, indoor “supper club” shows this winter.

“Hopefully, we will get back to regular capacity in use of the room in the future but nobody really knows how long that will be,” said Howard. “In the meantime, we just have to stay creative and positive and keep rolling with the punches.”