Comedy and Covid

Since our launch in September 2017, Hungerford Comedy Club has become a regular feature of the town’s calendar. Having begun life in the Corn Exchange, and enjoyed a one-night stand in the rugby club, we moved to The Croft Hall in 2019 and immediately felt at home in a venue beautifully adapted for performance. It was going great.

Then came Coronavirus. Our March gig was cancelled and the live performance industry fell apart.  In May, June and July, we managed to ‘stage’ three online gigs, which were very well supported. But clearly, our ambition was always to get back out in front of proper audience.

So, all through the summer, I’d been thinking about how to return. Although this isn’t the case now, you may recall that through July and August the Coronavirus figures were in decline and some people were even getting on planes again. Boris implored you all to get back to the office and eat-out to help out. The Croft Hall was open, but even so, social distancing for indoor events meant it would be impossible to generate a crowd. The only option for Hungerford Comedy Club seemed to be to go outdoors.

Outdoors. Ha! What could possibly go wrong with that?

My immediate thought was whether we could use the courts at Hungerford Tennis Club – since I had already dismissed the idea of staging a gig in a soggy field (we’re not Glastonbury). I used to play bowls at Hungerford. I’ve known the club for years and I’m good friends with the chairman (both through tennis and through Arts for Hungerford). The club was immediately supportive of the proposal. I’d already calculated how many people could be safely seated on court, with social distancing properly applied, so it was simply a case of working out how to make it work outdoors…at the start of autumn, you know, when the leaves start to fall and it often rains.

Putting on any event is always full of stress. Will we get an audience? Will the audience like the acts? Will the acts find the venue? What happens if an act can’t make it because they’re ill, or their car breaks down on the way? Is there a doctor in the house?

Lots of stress.

So, what difference does it make to commit to do it all just when the Coronavirus infection rate is ramping up, when the weather is changing for the worse, and the tennis club – quite rightly – is starting to question what damage might be done by 320 chair legs scraping on its court surface.

To be honest, if your ‘worry bucket’ is already full, even though it keeps raining more worries, your bucket can only hold so much. But, my worry bucket was full and over-flowing.

We had done our risk assessment for coronavirus on the night, alongside other health and safety issues. How to stop someone falling on to the bowling green on the way home? How to ensure people stayed socially distant during the interval. We had rather less control on how to stop people freezing to death in their seats if the weather turned nasty. And what about the impact of coronavirus outside of our control? What if there was a regional or national lockdown? What if all events were banned? What if one of the acts had to self-isolate? What if I had to self-isolate? What if the government introduced a 10pm drinking up curfew?

Then some of these worries started coming true. You’ll have recognised the last one on the list. In addition, three days before the gig one of the acts did indeed report they were self-isolating and waiting for a test. Great! Need to find another act. No problem. How many acts have got work at the moment? None. None of us have got any work. So, I find another act, and then the original act, thankfully, reports a negative result, so that’s positive. (A positive result is a negative, but a negative result is a positive. Have I got that right?) So now, with two days to go we have two acts for that slot. What the heck? More expense but the Hungerford audience can’t get too much of a good thing. They deserve more rather than less.

The Coronavirus-related issues were relatively straightforward. Once we’d had written confirmation from the DCMS that a comedy night was permitted it was ‘simply’ a case of following the rules. All seats had to be socially distanced of course. All procedures for track and trace had to be followed – easy enough since this was a ticketed event, where only those who’d supplied full contact details would be allowed in. There were no on the door sales, and all seating was allocated. We even took the precaution of assigning an arrival time to the different sections of the audience to prevent a queue at the gate, and there were various other measures taken to protect people and the facilities. The Hungerford Club put in its own measures for track and trace using the NHS app, so pretty much everyone was logged in twice.

And in the event, it was cold but it was dry. And with some kind of prescient genius, we had already planned a start at 7pm, to allow people to arrive in daylight (at staggered timeslots to prevent queueing) and so the 10pm curfew on serving drinks was of no consequence whatsoever to us. We were already planning to be finished way before 10pm. In fact, we finished much earlier because on the night, the audience was cold enough not to want an interval! And then they left, one couple/bubble at a time, in carefully considered, Covid-secure and socially-distanced fashion.

So, lots of stress beforehand, lots of laughter on the night, and lots of positive feedback since. And lots of support too from Phil Brown and the Hungerford Club which provided a table-service for drinks throughout the night. And support too from my willing band of stewards who sanitised every seat before and after the show, and put chunks of my lounge carpet under every chair leg. And from Chris Dodds who brought us chairs from The Croft Hall to use, and from all the shops, like Hungerford Bookshop, M&P Hardware, Tesco, Newbury Building Society, and Bossoms who displayed our posters, and Stuart March Photography for a video promo. And of course, to the Hungerford audience, supportive and lovely as always. And my wife, for letting me cut up our lounge carpet and spread it on a tennis court.

Which leads to the question, can I go through it all again in November? The headline act I’ve already got lined up for November is the biggest ‘name’ I’ve tried to get so far. He deserves a big audience. But outdoors in November…? Would Hungerford Tennis Club let me put a bonfire in the middle of court number two? Just thought I’d ask…

Graeme Coulam

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