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Stripping Down The Barriers To In-Person Theater During COVID

The Vivid drive-through strip club during off-hours.
The Vivid drive-through strip club during off-hours.
Photo by Jessica Goldman

It was a Monday, the first time I tried to go to the drive-through strip club. I suppose I should’ve known it would be closed; this style of performance sounded more like a weekend kinda thing.

I did have a nice chat with the Parking Valet though, bemused as he was to see me there. The drive-through, he explained, an offering from Vivid Gentleman’s Club, was only open Thursday to Saturday. He also gave me the rundown of how it worked. From the safety of your car, you place an order from the kitchen (no doubt a legal requirement to allow dancing outside the club). Then, while your food is being prepared, you drive into a large tent-like structure in the parking lot where you're entertained by two erotic dancers and a live DJ for a maximum of two songs. Tips are appreciated and can be thrown from your car window.

I bid my time until Thursday.

The second time I tried to go to the drive-through strip club, I figured I better call first. Not open tonight, I was told, because of the rain. Even though the ladies are well sheltered by the tent, running cables for music and lighting was a no-no during even a drizzle. Fair enough, safety first, and besides, who wants to see a show like this without all the technical bells and whistles?

It then proceeded to pour all weekend. The irony was not lost on me that I was literally waiting for it not to rain so I could go, throw my bills, and “make it rain.”

Fast forward to Thursday, finally, blue sky all day. Still, I called just to be sure. “Yeah, we've closed the drive-through permanently, but you're welcome to dine in our indoor restaurant and catch the show”. A nice offer, but not what I was after.

You see, the reason this theater critic wanted to visit a drive through a strip club wasn’t for the food or even really the ladies. I can stay home, order takeout, and look at my own boobs after all.

What I so desperately wanted was performance. In-person performance. Theatrical or whatever else I could get. The kind of performance that COVID has ripped from our lives and doesn’t show signs of giving back any time soon.

Yes, of course, I've been watching performances online. A life without theater is a miserable existence in my books. So, I've zoomed and streamed all manners of shows, readings, monologues, archive captures, radio plays, and benefit concerts. Some have been great. Most are fine. Too many have bored me to tears.

But even a die-hard theater junkie like myself has grown utterly weary of the whole thing. I’m tired of staring at my screen in general and increasingly resentful at having to stare at it in order to experience the artform I so love. I’m aching to turn off all my technology and, without distraction, give my full attention to a performance. Despite all this, there’s no way you’ll find me anywhere near an indoor theater anytime soon, crowded or not. Nor do I want any artist, on or behind the stage, to be put at risk of infection.

What I do want is for theater companies and artists to make some money. Hit first by Harvey and now decimated by COVID, I’m deeply concerned about the financial health of our city’s theater community and who will and won’t be left standing when this is all over.

With very few exceptions, the online offerings by Houston companies have been free of charge or donation dependent, some even asking artists to volunteer their time. All for content that even I’m struggling to get excited about or pay proper attention to.

Surely there has to be another way. Hence the attempted foray into the drive-through strip thing. Were the Vivid folks onto something I wondered? What could theater learn from this in person, safe, intimate (as in small) attempt at entertaining people?

Turns out, I didn’t need to experience the dancers to find examples of the kind of performance I was looking for.
At first, it came as possibility, a new play by Adam Szymkowicz called The Parking Lot. Written to be performed outside (in a parking lot) by two actors quarantined together who can play a couple with the audience watching from the safety of their cars.

Now look, I have no idea if the play is any good, but I can tell you that my colleagues and I went to town on social media suggesting and tagging Houston actor couples we’d love to see do a show like this. While many performers loved the idea, to my knowledge there are no takers yet.

Then I got word from Canada of an open-air theater festival. A FESTIVAL?! Is that even possible? It is and it was thanks to Here For Now, an independent Stratford-based theater company who held their 2020 Open-Air Theatre Festival in the backyard lawns of a local hotel. Six small cast/low tech shows, socially distant seating on lawn chairs, and a mandated small audience. It sounded like heaven on earth, as long as I had a good supply of insect spray nearby.

Back here in the United States, even strict COVID rule enforcer, Actors' Equity Association sounds like they’re getting in on the outdoor action. News as of last week reported that the actor’s union was about to approve Oakland Theater Project’s drive-in one-woman adaptation of T.S. Eliot's, The Waste Land. Just like a typical drive-in, audiences will view the show in their cars with vocals and soundscape piped in via radio frequencies to personal electronic devices.

So, it is happening. Theater that gets you away from your screens and out of your house is being performed in a way that's safe for everyone.

Just not in Houston.

At least not yet.

It’s not a huge surprise that Catastrophic Theatre would be the ones coming to quench our live performance desert. After all, they’re a company that’s willing to try all sorts of risky, weird, and unexpected things indoors, why wouldn’t’ they be the first to take that spirit and make in-person theater happen safely again in this town?
The Drama Squad, playing Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 will dispatch troupes of actors, by reservation, to your front lawn to perform original work by eight artists.

Live theater that comes to you! Frankly, I'm so damn excited to be an audience member for this that I may very well spackle my face with makeup and wear a ball gown/tiara on my front lawn to watch the show.

Spring 2021 will also feature another Catastrophic in-person performance, a resurrection of Horse Head Theatre’s smash hit concert/theater performance, We’re Gonna Die by Young Jean Lee. Details of all the safety precautions are being finalized, but the company believes they have a venue and process that will satisfy even the most virus wary.

Maybe if we’re lucky, these types of efforts are forthcoming from other companies. You can be sure I’ll be hollering in delight if so.

If not, yes, I’ll still be watching online, as I hope others will. It’s not a perfect way to consume theater by any means. But I’m hoping that after seeing at least some in-person theater it will feel as though some steam has been released from the kettle, leaving me ready to boil again for all manners of watching theater in these difficult times.

Oh, and if any company adds some kind of strip-like element to their outdoor show, I still have all the dollar bills I collected for the drive-through. If you're OK with it, I'd love nothing better than to throw them at you in sincere appreciation for all your hard and creative work.

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