Only Stage Left, The Internet: A Look Into Greece’s Virtual Comedy Scene During COVID-19
At a time when traditional socializing isn’t possible, Greek comedians have had to get creative. Fortunately, they have the internet at their fingertips.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, all non-essential businesses are closed. This means that Greeks haven’t been able to go to their favorite tavernas, cafes, and bars for about a month. More importantly, many haven’t been able to work. The schools and churches have been closed, and the summer (and the business its tourism season brings) is up in the air.
Such a crisis also means that performers haven’t been able to perform. Comedy staples in Athens, such as Los Angeles in Gkazi and the Sunday stand-up nights at Foka Negra in Fokionos Negri have been postponed for the indefinite future.
For the comedians of Greece, life has turned upside down.
Certainly, such a situation means that there is an economic struggle for comedians, like many others in the gig economy. Simply put, no performances generally means no income.
The impact on comedy, however, is more than economic. Ultimately, comedy is a social activity. Stand-up simply is not the same without an audience. Improv is all about working together to make a scene. Comedy publications have writer’s rooms so that writers can work together to come up with the best of jokes.
So what happens when comedians can’t meet? This is an unprecedented situation many comedians and other entertainers in Greece and around the world face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stage left, the internet.
While comedians may not be able to see each other in person, they are more connected with one another online than ever before. This means that the potential to collaborate and publish new work and even perform “live” is not completely gone. Rather, it is available in ways never seen before.
As such, many Greek comedians have taken to their corners of the internet, such as Greek entertainment website Luben TV and the popular Instagram account AncientMemes, to let off steam. And with a (somewhat) captive audience, quarantine-related memes, podcasts, and livestream performances abound.
Live performers, in the meantime, are finding creative ways of trying out their art online. Improvibe, an improv comedy club in Athens, is trying a new approach to its weekly shows and jams: Zoom calls. While it is certainly not the same as a practice or performance in real life, Zoom, a platform that has been popularized with many now working from home, is still a way to taste the collaboration and teamwork that is key to improv.
The calls are easy to watch: one simply has to go to the organization’s Facebook page when a “performance” is to occur and the video will be posted. Viewers can leave comments on Facebook as the performance goes on, meaning that suggestions of topics for scenes can be taken that way.
The first call on 27 March had about two-hundred viewers when it first began, with over one-hundred still watching until the end of the performance ninety minutes later.
With such a success in terms of virtual attendance, Improvibe plans to continue such performances as the lockdown goes on. However, Menelaos Prokos, founder of Improvibe, felt that the quality of the improv was simply not comparable to the improv that can be done during a live show.
“We realized [that for our first online show] we had some good parts and some bad parts…. We were doing some talks [during the first online performance] and some improv scenes. We hated the improv scenes, but we had so much fun during the talks… and, we were like “okay so that is what works online,” said Prokos. “In short, we cannot do what we really want to do in the theatre. But it is really fun to discover that you can use such an online medium to chat with friends and to drink and talk crap and hang out, which is what we all wanted to do anyways.”
One major limitation noted by Prokos and others is that performers cannot interact with themselves or with their audiences like they would be able to in real life. The result is that online performances are much less personal.
While audiences have ways of interacting with virtual performances (namely, commenting on performance posts in real-time), the absence of laughter during virtual shows is of particular difficulty to comedians, especially stand-up comedians, who often directly attribute the success or failure of their material to the audience’s reaction or lack thereof. This is why short open-mics are popular for comedians to use as testing grounds: they are able to see whether a particular joke they were trying out works as is, or whether it needs reworking.
“Improv and stand-up are both hard if you don’t hear the audience,” said Aggelos Spiliopoulos, a stand-up comedian based in Athens. With stand up, “I cannot write the set [in the same way]. ….It’s difficult, I do the writing of the set, I do the performance of the set…. But without the audience, I have to do the performance online as is, not the correct way,” without feedback in order to further play with or build comedic material. “That is the problem with performances on the internet or online as they happen outside the tradition.” He adds.
At the same time, now that comedians are not bound by the immediate laughter (or the lack thereof) of their audiences, they are able to better consider their own instincts and their own comedic styles. When performing online, “you cannot hear the laughter, so you don’t know what is going well or what’s going on or what is okay or what is fun for the audience. But on the other side…you hear what you want to do…you are able to do what you want,” said Maro Lesioti, a performer from Improvibe.
“When you are on stage and you hear people laugh, even if you don’t like so much what you are doing, or if you have another idea, you follow this feedback — you follow the laugh. You say, okay, they are having fun. Let’s do it again, let’s go that way,” Lesioti continued. “I think it’s very dangerous to …not hear what you want deep inside. So, not having an audience makes you hear more of what you want, and what your teammates want.”
While such a situation provides interesting benefits, the resulting economic one for performers is not among them. Those interviewed said the upcoming few months could be quite difficult, especially for comedians and organizations who may not be as established or do not have a significant amount of savings to rely upon during difficult times.
Making matters worse, performers are not receiving the extra eight-hundred euros that many other Greeks are getting from the government to ease the financial ramifications of the crisis. Depending on how long the lockdown continues, the financial situation could be dire for many performers and the general population alike.
“I will start studying again for law school!” Angelos Spiliopoulos joked in reference to the financial situation for comedians. “Just kidding….there is some work with the video and with the online shows, but [payment] doesn’t happen like it does for live performances,” Spilopoulos pointed out.
Another issue is that many upcoming gigs and festivals many seasoned performers travel to are likely to be canceled altogether, which means that the income that performers would have taken from such events has dried up. Improvibe, for example, has canceled its annual Mount Olymprov International Theater Improv festival, which was set to take place in June of this year. The festival, which has been going on since 2016, is one performers’ from all over Europe fly in to attend.
Spiliopoulos, furthermore, had noted that a lot of the future of traveling for comedy (and therefore, making money off tours and other performances) depends on not only Greece’s own lockdown schedule but also with the rules of other countries that he and other comics would normally consider traveling to: As such, many international performances may well be called-off for the rest of the year.
With fears arising that the current pandemic will lead to another financial recession, there is also some fear that when things open back up, people will not have as much money to see live shows and performances.
Still, those interviewed expressed optimism for the future.
“Life finds a way,” argued Prokos. Even in the heart of the financial crisis where we were like, “we can’t even afford food,” people were going and buying shit-tons of drinks at the bar. So this whole thing of “I’m not gonna have money to see a show?” No, they will have money to see a show. Not as much as before, but it will be fine.”
Those interviewed hoped and believed, furthermore, that many will look forward to the stand-up sets being written in a period of down-time. They emphasized, however, that it is also alright to not have to write, or use the time to be productive artistically.
“I think it’s a good time to give ourselves, you know, a break… or give us some time to think, work personally on our arts, whatever that means, study, read books we didn’t have the time for …and you know, gather things that we can use later,” Lesioti emphasized.
“There’s no point to try to do work at this time,” Prokos concluded. “As I see it, this period is a time to do nothing. Everything is at a full stop. When was the last time in your life that you had time? Like, literally time to work on anything you possibly wanted without the guilt of time running out?…Chances are, when we get back to our daily lives, we won’t have time to do that anymore.” he added.