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Philip Markle, Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Comedy Collective / Photography by Brian McConkey

All the World’s an App

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A theater in Williamsburg moves entirely online. Published: October 06, 2020

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!

Today marks the 27th #SmallBizSpotlight produced in my Brooklyn apartment — not a particularly meaningful number (except, of course, in rock and roll), but it speaks to the duration of our collective isolation. I saw one of my best friends for the first time in seven (!) months last weekend, and I shed a tear on my way to meet her. We’ve lost and learned so much since March, and it’s worthwhile to take a random beat once and while to remember that fact. So, happy 27!

This week, I'm featuring Philip Markle, the founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Comedy Collective (BCC). Launched in 2018 with the mission to pay artists equitably and amplify diverse voices, the Williamsburg-based theater and school is known for a particularly joyful take on comedy (read: no jokes at the expense of others). Since losing the physical space in April, Markle has transitioned BCC into an entirely online operation — keep reading to learn how.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you react to the shutdown in March?
The first thing we did was pivot to online classes in subjects that we felt could translate to Zoom. We started off with storytelling, stand-up, and musical comedy classes… Things that were more or less one person at a time presenting. From there, we added a class on digital comedy, specifically creating content for online satire pieces. As of this session, we brought improv back, which we piloted with a couple of workshops.

What does a virtual improv class look like?
It doesn't involve object work or any sort of physical contact between people. It is mostly verbal or storytelling-based. At the end of the day, it's not that different from two people being in a scene together, it’s just happening through video cameras. No matter what you're doing, the skills of improvisation translate. Improv has made me a more adaptable, bold, and “yes and-ing” person in general. So we're focusing on those skills as they apply to everything online and also creating a space for people to goof off with each other... We're going through very dark times right now, and having two hours to pal around and be silly is in itself a powerful thing.

When did you begin livestreaming shows?
An app called TVCO reached out to us — their talent manager had seen shows and liked the vibe of our comedy — and that [partnership] came together in early April. It was really exciting because it allowed us to immediately get back to our mission of creating fearless, diverse comedy and paying performers. We have a different show every night, Tuesdays to Sundays. It was a learning curve, but I feel like we've gotten great at making engaging shows with a mix of multimedia and two-person or more work so [performers have] someone to bounce off. It's definitely not the same, but it's an awesome lifeline to our community to continue being creative in an otherwise really challenging time.

What’s happened with your physical space?
[Before the pandemic,] we were in the back room of a Mexican restaurant called Cantina Royal, and we paid rent in that we shared a significant cut of our box office with them, around $3000 a month. They closed their doors in July and someone else took over their lease, so we put all our stuff in storage.

So you weren’t locked into a lease or anything?
No. In a weird way, we are fortunate that with losing our space, we are not on the hook for any rent. We are a completely online operation and it's given us some leeway to survive this moment.

Did you see it from that perspective right when Cantina Royal closed?
I mean, it was definitely a pivot. It was scary. It was a lot of learning. I feel proud that we moved quickly. BCC has made a mark for itself in successfully doing livestreams and being one of the only comedy theaters to continue to pay people in this radical new format, thanks to our relationship with TVCO. There's been a million little things we've learned, finding what plays well on the app to make the shows even better.

And from an operational standpoint, how are you doing?
It's constantly varying. In terms of signups with our classes, we had a stronger summer session than we did this fall... But fall is better than [last spring]. Over the summer, we launched a diversity initiative to offer free tuition to BIPOC students, and a lot of our community donated [to the fund]: we raised $5,000 for the first round, giving 25 spots free of charge. So we saw that even if some of our community didn't want to take an online class themselves, they were more than happy to contribute to someone else who could have that opportunity. And that fund has continued: I believe we offered 13 spots this September/October. We're trying to encourage our community to show up, donate, or participate if they can, because it's going towards good causes and it's keeping comedy alive. We are not losing money. We’re basically breaking even right now.

Have you applied for any loans or grants?
We have... Mostly, we haven't gotten them. We got a PPP loan, it's okay. It helped us for a couple months. We have applied for some nightlife grants here and there. It's really hard. This money is needed by a lot of organizations right now, and full disclosure, we're a for-profit organization, so that limits what we can have. And my heart goes out to the spaces that are on the hook for rent right now, like House of Yes. We are fortunate that we were able to move online and put our stuff in storage.

What's your take on the recently articulated ban on live ticketed events?
I mean, safety first, right? And people's comfort first. I don't want to be in a position of moving too fast on this and making anyone potentially unsafe, whether that's performers or audiences. I am very excited about the return to in-person classes and shows, but I only see it happening after a vaccine is widespread because the risk of anybody being hurt by that choice outweighs the benefits to me of a live performance. And we're seeing that you can do shows online. It is a different experience, but it is a valuable experience. That's where I'm at with any sort of reopening. I understand that outdoor shows are relatively safe if there's social distancing and mask usage, but for an indoor space, I hesitate to think it’s possible before widespread vaccine adoption.

How do you feel about the state government’s response to this crisis in terms of small business support?
From my point of view, New York went through hell, and we've done an astonishingly good job of getting the [infection] rate under 1 percent [Editorial note: We spoke before news broke of spiking rates in 20 neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens]. The city takes the virus seriously. I trust our officials and what they're saying more than I do at the federal level. A federal response is needed to things like the Save Our Stages Act, which is in the Senate right now. Nightclubs and artistic venues all over this country are going to be snuffed out if there isn't serious action taken for the arts on a national level. The only thing I would say is, I wish New York City would offer rent relief because that is the biggest problem right now. No one should be paying rent when they can't fully operate because of the pandemic.

How do you imagine this crisis will impact your business in the long run?
I wish I could answer that. Right now we're surviving, and that to me is a triumph. I have no idea what the next six months are going to be like. If live comedy can come back, the goal for 2021 is to open up a space of our own. I don't know if that's going to happen.

When there's a vaccine widely available and we can fully return to in-person gatherings, will you keep doing virtual shows as well?
I think they’re complementary. [Virtual programming] serves people who don't want to go out. That's become the new normal. Nobody even knew what Zoom was, at least in my community, before this; no one was used to watching live shows online. Once it's been introduced and if it's done successfully, it will continue to appeal to people who like that experience or don't live in New York and can't come see the Brooklyn Comedy Collective live. I love our relationship with TVCO, I cannot tell you how supportive they have been, and I would like to continue that as long as we can, including if and when live shows come back.

How to help:

Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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