For nearly five months, the coronavirus pandemic has confined Pittsburgh’s performing-arts groups almost exclusively to online programming. Even after state rules loosened to allow performance halls to operate at reduced capacity, most decided it was unsafe or simply impractical to do so.
The only other option, outdoor live performances, has been so far limited to drive-in concerts at a handful of suburban venues. But Sunday, Arcade Comedy Theater becomes Pittsburgh’s first arts group to launch a live outdoor performance series during the pandemic.
On Sundays and Mondays, Arcade at the Oasis will take over the Trust Oasis, a plaza-like space owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust on Seventh Street, Downtown. About 40 distanced seats will face a small stage hosting local standup comics and improv performers.
“This is really sort of a Hail Mary in the time of COVID, in terms of really trying to think outside of the box,” said Abby Fudor, Arcade’s managing artistic director.
Arcade also plans to move its comedy-performance classes outdoors to the space, with masking, social-distancing, and more flexible, drop-in-style attendance.
In June, when Allegheny County entered the green phase of the pandemic shutdown, venues were permitted to operate at half-capacity, with distancing requirements. Arcade was exploring doing so at its theater on Liberty Avenue when COVID-19 cases in the county began to rise sharply. “We really pivoted,” said Fudor, who co-founded the nonprofit group, in 2013.
“I just started asking people, ‘What about outside?’” she said. “People feel so much safer outside.”
Infectious-disease experts say outdoor activities are less conducive to the conditions necessary to transmit the virus.
The Cultural Trust created the Trust Oasis last year, primarily as a site for temporary public art (most recently the array of giant, lit-from-within prisms called “Prismatica”). Fudor said Arcade recognizes the challenges of turning it into a pop-up, open-air comedy club on a city street.
For instance, signage as well as security personnel will encourage passersby to keep moving so a crowd doesn’t form and create a safety hazard, she said.
Comedy, she notes, has some built-in COVD-safe advantages over other performance arts. Stand-up comics, for instance, are by nature solo acts, while improv performers don’t need to rehearse, per se. Improv teams will be limited to performers who live together, she said.
Local stand-up talents lined up for Arcade at the Oasis include Paige Polesnak, Brittany Alexis, Aarik Nesby, and Sara Kantner.
The performances will be shorter than Arcade’s standard 75 minutes – probably more like 45 minutes, Fudor said. The shows continue as long as the weather allows, she said.
She believes the audience demand is there.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that just deeply in their bones miss laughing together and seeing comedy and feeling part of this community,” she said. “So that’s why we’re doing this.”
The first show is Sunday, and will feature local stand-up acts Aaron Kleiber and Kayleigh Dumas.