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Humor in the face of COVID-19: The Kate hosts first live show since March with a comedy lineup

Old Saybrook — For the first time in eight months, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center hosted a live performance on Friday — a standup gig where the comics even found some humor in life during a pandemic.

In the show, dubbed The Best of Boston Comedy Festival, Jim McCue looked at the masked audience at one point and joked, “I know I’m killing, but your laughs are muffled.”

Carolyn Plummer acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough, but there are things from the experience she’d want to maintain.

“I’d keep the 6 feet away (rule) at the grocery store. ... Let me pick out my avocados in peace,” she said.

What Plummer said she is sick of, though, are people who are excelling during quarantine — learning seven languages, perhaps — and bragging about it. “Maybe you want to keep that to yourself. I have IKEA furniture I can’t find time to put together in quarantine,” she said.

They joked about topics unrelated to the pandemic, as well, of course — from relationships to jobs.

With Friday’s show, the Kate became one of the first venues in the state to offer a live indoor performance since March.

“We were really thrilled to welcome friends back to the Kate ... I think it went well,” Brett Elliott, the Kate’s executive director, said Saturday. “Certainly, we had some room for a few more people (about 50 people, mostly in clusters of two, socially distanced in the 250-seat theater), but we decided to move forward with it because there were people who were really looking forward to it, and that was great.”

The Kate already had been doing some film screenings. But Friday was its first live show after the pandemic-induced shutdown, with the second night of The Best of Boston Comedy Festival scheduled for Saturday — and those also might be the last ones for a little while.

The number of COVID-19 cases keeps rising in Connecticut and elsewhere, and the only other live performance set for the Kate through the end of the year has been scrapped. Legendary pianist George Winston was scheduled to play two concerts there next week, but he canceled his various gigs because of the uptick in coronavirus cases.

The Kate scheduled the comedy and Winston performances back when Connecticut was moving into Phase 3 of reopening, but then, of course, a lot changed since then, with a surge in cases and then the reopening rollback.

Elliott said that, back when Phase 3 was going into effect, he and his team “decided to try what we thought was going to be a slow and steady reopening — of course, now it’s kind of thwarted. But we chose comedy because there weren’t singers and it was very controlled. And we chose George Winston because he was at the piano, and there was no singing and very controlled. You know, it wasn’t a Led Zeppelin tribute ... We really tried to think about what we could do that offered something as safe as possible.”

In addition, the Kate instituted a bevy of safety protocols, including increasing the percentage of outdoor air that circulates into the theater’s ventilation system.

Patrons are seated far apart. Everyone — theatergoers and staff members — has to wear a mask all the time. There are no concessions and no intermissions.

And audiences are limited to no more than 100 people.

As for the fate of possible future performances, Elliott said, “So much of it depends on what happens month to month.”

He gave an example: “You look at a solo singer/songwriter. We might have one of them in January. Where are they coming from, and what does that look like, and how many tickets can we sell? And if we sell all of those tickets, does it even pay for the artist’s travel to get to us?”

What is certain: The Kate will be starting to offer more virtual performances. Darlene Love, for instance, is doing a holiday concert. Her agent approached venues Love has worked with, including the Kate, about it, and while most of the ticket sales for the virtual concert will go the artist, the venues will get a portion of those sales.

And the Kate will continue to screen films and previously recorded performances by, for instance, the Metropolitan Opera. Currently on the schedule for December: the Metropolitan Opera in HD Encore of “Tosca,” 1 p.m. Nov. 21; the film “Frozen,” 1 p.m. Dec. 5; Met in HD Encore of “The Magic Flute,” 1 p.m. Dec. 12; Bolshoi Ballet in HD of “The Nutcracker,” 1 p.m. Dec. 13; and the film “Elf,” 1 p.m. Dec. 19. 


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