Updated: Friday, 4:40 p.m.
Eric Jaffe is a drag performer who has a regular gig every Saturday morning performing during brunch at the Punch Line, a comedy venue in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.
“Most of my drag is around comedic parody songs,” said Jaffe. “Sort of like if Weird Al [Yankovic] was a big, weird drag queen.”
But last Friday, the day before Jaffe’s weekend drag brunch, all theaters across Pennsylvania were shuttered for fear of spreading the COVID-19 virus. So Jaffe immediately created a quarantine version of drag brunch, inviting an online audience to join them in their home via Facebook Live for brunch.
With his fiancé and their cat Morgan, the Jaffe show featured the baking of a quiche, parodies of show tunes, an animal balloon demonstration, and lots of orange juice and champagne — all while moving through different rooms of their apartment.
“It was fun, almost a Mr. Rogers sort of thing,” they said.
After a final number – a cover of Lizzo’s “Juice” (“Blame it on my juice,” sang Jaffe, pointing to their mimosa) – they ended the roughly 80-minute Facebook Live performance with a plea for donations to the Philadelphia Performing Artist’s Emergency Fund, a GoFundMe campaign for drag and cabaret performers.
After the stream ended, Jaffe discovered many other performers had the same idea to take what they normally do onstage and re-tool it for home, where they have sheltered in place, and make it available on Facebook Live. So Jaffe now updates their Facebook page with a daily list of other performers, listed by hour, becoming an ad hoc, virtual festival of online cabaret. There are about 25 performances (and growing) scheduled every day until the end of the week.
“As queer people, our community is more than just our friends. The people on these lists mean the world to me. They are my family,” said Jaffe. “We have to look out for each other. This is a way of doing that. It’s more than getting on and performing. It’s getting on and checking in with each other and seeing how people are doing.”
Raising funds for out-of-work performers
As performance venues rapidly shut down and concern for artists and stage crew grew, the drag and cabaret community was one of the quickest to react. The Philadelphia Performing Artist’s Emergency Fund was set up by three drag performers early Friday. By Monday morning, it had passed its $10,000 goal.
The intention is to distribute all of the money as micro-grants of no more than $250. As of Wednesday evening, over 200 applications were submitted.
“We try to prioritize more marginalized members of the community in the drag and burlesque scene,” said Ebony Ali, who goes by Icon Ebony Fierce on stage. “If you are a performer and you need emergency funds for anything like food, if you’re a little short on rent, if you need to pay a phone bill, whatever, you qualify for the fund.”
Because GoFundMe involves a delay of a few days to a week to release the donated money, Ali says the campaign now prefers donors use other transaction platforms, like Venmo, to make money available immediately.
On Monday the Ardmore Music Hall launched a $50,000 GoFundMe campaign to support its staff. Located in Montgomery County, the venue was among the first to be closed by order of Gov. Tom Wolf to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
By Wednesday, the crowdfunding campaign had reached over $18,000 in donations for out-of-work staff.
“This includes everyone from managers to bartenders to security staff to production to maintenance to marketers,” reads the campaign plea. “These folks are our backbone.”
Shakespeare for kids, virtual field trips, and Zoo School
Many theater companies are also figuring out how to continue presenting performance while their stages are dark right now.
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre was forced to shut down its touring production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which had been traveling to schools throughout Pennsylvania.
While unable to perform on stage, the actors will be recording monologues as videos that can be used by teachers for online educational curricula. The actors are also recording Shakespearean fairy tales as online storytelling videos for quarantined children.
In Norristown, Theatre Horizon had to cancel its production of “The Agitators” midway through its run. Now the company is soliciting theater artists to submit proposals for videos for its YouTube channel, mostly behind-the-scenes demonstrations of how theater magic is made, like fight choreography and make-up techniques to create traumatic flesh wounds.
Theatre Horizon is paying them $45 for each 30-45-minute, self-produced video. Beginning next week, the company expects to be uploading two or three new videos every day.
“We decided to pivot swiftly to meet our community,” said artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen. “We recognized this need, that there are a lot of families at home looking for things to do and we have a lot of freelance and teaching artists who are out of work right now.”
Theatre Horizon has had a YouTube channel for some time, which Bang-Jensen described as “dormant.” Pre-coronavirus, most videos posted advocated for people to physically come to the theater in Norristown. Bringing people of diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds into one room to have a shared artistic experience is part and parcel of the community theater’s mission.
Now, in the era of coronavirus, bringing people physically together is impossible, but Bing-Jensen still believes she can build community.
“I’m thinking about videos coming out of Italy where strangers are singing to each other from their balconies while under quarantine,” she said. “In terms of our mission — to celebrate the power of theater to heal and build empathy for each other — this is the time when we need it most. We’re just coming up with a different method through which to do that.”
To fill that need for solace and empathy, a long-dormant funk queen is emerging online. Red 40, frontwoman for the popular local funk band Last Groovement, is a character invented by Martha Stuckey for when the band played “clown funk” shows featuring playful, sex-positive antics.
Red 40 and the Last Groovement played its last show a year ago New Year’s Eve at the FringeArts building in Philadelphia.
Since then Stuckey has pursued other interests, writing more pensive songs and becoming a practicing doula. After several days of self-quarantine, she realized it was time to bring back Red 40 and her unique brand of catharsis.
“I had a moment yesterday – and it was just yesterday, things are moving quickly – when I was thinking that the joy the Red 40 brings to people, the ability to find space to play and find pleasure, that seems really important,” Stuckey recalled on Friday. “And not for nothing, it gives me something to focus on that is not the news. So I thought it would be a good moment to bring her back.”
Stuckey will perform as Red 40 from her home, via Instagram on Friday night. The show will include guests Johnny Showcase and dancer Linda Frank, as well as an interactive game show of Stuckey’s own invention.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m going to make arbitrary teams out of the folks who are tuning in,” she said. “There will be points and interaction, and hopefully it will be a fun, goofy time.”
If all goes well, Stuckey would like to make the Red 40 show a weekly event.
Other cultural institutions are pushing their existing digital resources. The Museum of the American Revolution, for example, offers a virtual field trip to its exhibitions that trace the origins of the United States, as well as teaching materials for homeschooling.
The Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey and the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown are both closed to visitors, but have launched on online Zoo School, wherein staff take an online audience on a virtual tour of a different part of the zoo, featuring an introduction to a different animal. Participants are encouraged to take on learning challenges at home to interact via social media.