In the days before quarantine and social distancing, Sea Tea Improv was the place in Hartford to see live, original comedy shows and take comedy classes and workshops. In 2017, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price learned all about this Hartford gem from Co-Founding Member and Managing Director Julia Pistell (read: Startup Improv Troupe Finds Its Place in Hartford).
With forced closing in mid-March and a phased in reopening beginning in June, things are a little different for every industry. Nan checked in with Julia for an update.
NAN PRICE: Tell us about the business evolution since we last talked.
JULIA PISTELL: We’re proud to be part of a growing, healthy, exciting, artistic community in Hartford. Since we last spoke, we opened our 90-seat theater in downtown Hartford. We were in a groove, putting on hundreds of shows a year through our theater and our touring company. We also moved our studios from Pratt Street to the same building as our theater on Asylum Street. We upgraded the space and put all our community in one place.
On the audience side, we were seeing steady growth with lots of new folks finding us. I was feeling relaxed for the first time as a business owner and we were focusing on our artistic mission and exciting future projects.
NAN: And then, COVID-19. How has that impacted everything moving forward?
JULIA: It was amazing how quickly we shut down for the pandemic. The best thing about an improv company is that it’s inherently adaptable. There weren’t any sets, supplies, or costumes we needed to pack up. We just turned out the lights and closed the door and no one went back. Reopening will be the same.
NAN: What does reopening look like for you?
JULIA: Right now, it looks like theaters are going to have to completely change their physical operations, so audience members interact with as few people—including other audience members—as possible. This means distancing between seating and very staggered entrance times. We’ve talked about, instead of having people come up to our concession stand, providing concessions almost like at a baseball game, with somebody bringing food and drinks to the audience. So, big operation changes there.
Obviously, reopening requires much more cleaning. Not only because that’s the right thing to do from a health perspective, but because national surveys have indicated that audiences won’t come back to public places unless they know things are being constantly cleaned.
Finally, for us, the real challenge is that our space is built to be intimate. We have to make a small space feel very safe, which is challenging. The performers are close to the audience. The staff is very small, so they’re interacting with everybody.
We don’t have that feel of a movie theater or even something like Hartford Stage, where you can sit in the back row and feel like you’re far enough away from everything. Our performers may have to wear masks, or we may need to put up some kind of barrier between the performers and the audience.
NAN: As a person in a leadership position, what have you learned from going through this? Any silver linings?
JULIA: We’ve tried to respect how much time and space our team needs to process, take a break, and live through this historical moment. So, we’ve done much less online content than other folks because we don’t want to burn ourselves out. We’ve done a couple of live shows, on average maybe one a week, which feels very slow to us. Normally we’re doing a million things. But the little we’ve done has been successful. So, I think it’s been just the right amount.
The silver lining, as everyone will tell you, is that, in a certain way, bringing things online makes it more accessible. People don’t have to travel to get there. Folks who are immunocompromised don’t have to worry.
But I will say, it’s just not the same. Our art form is built on in-person, live human connection. And, the big thing that rings in your ear when doing things virtually is, there’s nothing like live laughter in a room. When you’re doing a show and all you’re seeing is a bunch of little Facebook thumbs up, it just doesn’t give you the same experience on either end. We’ve thought a lot about that and how much we value our live audience experience.
NAN: Will you continue to offer virtual events in the future?
JULIA: We probably won’t produce our own virtual stuff. However, we do have a touring company that’s hired to do things all the time and we’re getting a big surge now in requests for virtual workshops, virtual lectures on improv, and shows for students. So, I think we’ll continue to smooth that out. And, as other people want to do more online, we’ll be there for them. For example, we’ll go to a conference in Kentucky virtually but for our Hartford audience, we’ll remain an in-person venue.
The key to all live entertainment isn’t so much the business and the art form, it’s the audience. For us, all we need to do is make the audience feel safe. We could open the doors, be totally ready, and feel totally great, but if the audience doesn’t come, the whole arts ecosystem is going to suffer.
That’s what the other arts leaders are talking about: Yes, we can make our theaters and museums safe, but will people be so afraid that they change their habits forever? That’s the big fear. We’re banking on the fact that people will want to be together again and they’ll want to laugh and have fun.