The coronavirus pandemic has left theaters and performance spaces worldwide, and on Columbia’s campus, empty. But is the theater world completely dark? In this first episode of the Ghost Light miniseries, Columbia comedy groups Fruit Paunch, Third Wheel, and Latenite Theatre discuss how they have adapted to the online school year and the importance of laughter.
[Claire Schnatterbeck]: My name is Claire, and you’re listening to the new Pod-Tone 292 mini-series Ghost Light. Over the next several episodes, I’ll be sitting down with members of Columbia and Barnard’s vibrant theater community to chat about their experiences creating and keeping theater alive during this past virtual year.
Have you ever been inside an empty theater? Not like being the first person to arrive at a show, but truly the only person in the entire building? The wings are empty, and the seats are vacant. Usually, those moments of eerie silence are reserved for the tech crew or a lonesome janitor. But if you have ever had that experience, or if you have a good amount of theater knowledge, you may be familiar with the ghost light.
The theater community has its fair share of superstitions, the most famous being the curse that results if you utter the actual name of “the Scottish play” in a theater, but my favorite has to be the ghost light.
A ghost light is a single bulb left on a stage when a theater is dark and empty. Some say that its purpose is to chase away spirits or light the way for ghosts haunting the theater, but, for the most part, it just helps to ensure that no one is injured or takes a misstep while making their way through the darkness.
The coronavirus pandemic has left its own kind of darkness. Theaters and performance spaces on Columbia’s campus and worldwide have been left empty. I can’t help but think about ghost lights left standing on their vacant stages, waiting for the house lights to come up and the crowds to fill the theater once again.
For this episode of Ghost Light, I talked with three student comedy groups: the improv groups Fruit Paunch and Third Wheel and the experimental theater group Latenite.
So yeah, just to kick things off, could you introduce yourself and kind of explain what your group does?
[Sophie Lee]: I’m Sophie Lee. I’m a junior in CC. I am one of the co-heads of Third Wheel.
[Naomi Rubin]: I’m Naomi. I’m a sophomore at Barnard. Also one of the co-heads.
[Maya Winkler]: My name is Maya Winkler, and I am one of the four active members on Fruit Paunch right now.
[Venice Ohleyer]: My name is Venice. I am president of Fruit Paunch improv.
[Jane Walsh]: My name is Jane Walsh. I’m a sophomore at Columbia College. I’m a film and media studies major. I’m secretary with Latenite.
[Fiona Flanagan]: I’m Fiona Flanagan, I’m a senior at Barnard College.
[Claire]: What is Third Wheel theater at Columbia?
[Sophie]: We are a co-ed improv group between Barnard and Columbia, in the four undergraduate colleges, and we are the third improv group on campus.
[Maya]: Fruit Paunch is Columbia’s oldest improv team. … Everything we do, everything we perform is totally improvised. … Nothing is scripted at all. And the most important rule is to say yes and to have fun.
[Fiona]: Do you have a better explanation for just what even Latenite is? It’s definitely, it also can be serious. I think people get some funny serious plays in there, but overall, mostly like weird comedy.
[Claire]: Comedy is one of the forms of entertainment that really relies on the audience’s energy. Much of improv is built on audience reactions and contributions to the players on stage. I can imagine how today, it disrupts the flow for actors to say, “Give me a location and an object,” and then wait for audience members to type in the Zoom chat instead of calling things out. The actors I spoke with expressed differing views on the online format so I’ll let them take it from here.
[Venice]: So, I think out of all the comedy forms, improv is maybe the worst-equipped to be virtual in that I would argue it shouldn’t even exist in terms of a performance setting. And I think all of the magical parts of improv exist in person. I think the first semester and end of spring 2020, we tried to hold on to what existed in person and try and recreate that. For the spring of 2021, we just accepted that is not possible and tried to shift gears and figure out, OK, if we can’t do all of the things we normally do, how can we adapt? And not in a sense of permanently––not like this is how we’re going to be forever, because that would be terrible. I’ll say, I think I could speak for everyone when this is not the ideal and this is not the final form of improv comedy. When this is over, we’re not going to stay this way like work-from-home people. But I think this semester we really tried to figure out, OK, this is what’s happening right now.
[Naomi]: We’ve done shows on Zoom, which has been fun for us. It’s hard to do shows on Zoom sometimes because so much of improv is playing off of the audience, and so when we do shows on Zoom, we can’t hear the audience obviously, but when we’re in person, sometimes hearing the audience can direct a whole show because we’ll hear the audience laugh and then in the scene, know, “OK. They like that. Let’s play to that and we’ll bring this character back. They clearly liked this character.” So when we’re doing the Zoom show, we’re just kind of flying blind and just trusting that people are enjoying it.
There’s something about doing current events improv that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why. I think it’s just—maybe I just don’t find it funny when someone reminds me of this pandemic. I’m like, “Ah, OK.” You know, but, I’m sure improv sets will be dealing with talking about Zoom and COVID in like 10 years. But I think, for now, we’re just trying to use our brains to escape the pandemic.
[Fiona]: So Jane did her play that was supposed to be on stage. So then they just turned it into a video, and I honestly think that one worked really well and people just kind of followed that example of the kind of types of weird editing, like videos that we make. But they’re definitely really different.
Also because of the pandemic, we have definitely had less people writing for it. Usually we would get like, 30 to 40 writers often each semester. And granted, a lot of it was just dumb, silly stuff, like a drunk notes app or something, but there still were serious contenders.
Whereas now we’ve got like three, and we were all like really canvassing to get people. I think people are just really hesitant to create right now. And when I feel like people have created really good stuff though, and like all the ones that we’ve done, I’m definitely really proud of it. And I think that it’s just mostly been so fun connecting with everyone over it.
[Claire]: So would you consider it to be more accessible even than previous years?
[Jane]: Yeah. I definitely think it’s a lot. It makes us feel in a different way. I think my biggest beef with theater and theater at Columbia in the past is that it’s very—even if shows don’t cost that much money or you can get them for free—I think theater just by itself is usually targeted toward a certain group of people.
And sometimes it doesn’t necessarily reach folks who might not go to the theater in the first place. I know I came from a low-income public high school and a lot of kids there, you don’t grow up going to theater if you don’t have a lot of money growing up. And I think that is probably the same thing in New York, but when it’s on YouTube, you can invite friends and family.
So I can say to people from my high school, “You can come see this now, and maybe be interested in a school at Columbia,” if they can see these sort of fun arts experiences that they maybe wouldn’t have access to if we weren’t using this format right now.
[Naomi]: Just from what comedy has given me in my life, I feel like it has, it’s given the world that now, when everyone is in a lot of pain and just, there’s, it’s very bleak. I think that’s when comedy shines most and when people reach for it, that’s when I reach for it, and I think, you know, it’s comedy. I think it’s been helping and I think it—Oh God, Sophie really amped me up for this. I wish I remember what I said.
It’s comedy. I think comedy—I mean, I’m biased. It’s my favorite thing in the whole world. And I think it really can, I mean, studies have shown it has, like, healing powers. Laughing makes you live longer, all these things. And I’m not saying that you should watch Stephen Colbert instead of getting the vaccine. I’m not saying that at all, but I do think that it’s been helping us get through this time, and I think it just will keep growing. There’s always a fear that live comedy will die or improv will die. I mean, improv is just like a tiny, tiny fraction of the community as a whole, but I don’t think it ever will because people need it too much.
[Venice]: And what we’ve learned from this is people need performance in life. People need art in person, and it’s not the same and it shouldn’t have to be. And so as things start to open up in the summer and we have outdoor performances, that need will always be there.
It’s just a human thing. And that can’t be replaced with virtual comedy. It’s like a nice interim. It’s like a nice thing to get us through, but I think regardless of like year or time or whatever, virtual generation where everyone likes to be together and experience our in person with other people. So I think it just made everyone appreciate it more.
[Maya]: Well real quick, I think it’s said everyone needs to laugh. It doesn’t matter where you are. If your fire alarm was going off in your dorm, if you’re wherever you are, you need to be laughing about it. It’s an essential part of life. Pandemic doesn’t matter. You need to be laughing and people always need that and want that.
So I think that it’s strange and odd to be doing improv online. But, we have two hours plus a week where we are forced to engage in laughter. And that is the most healthiest form––that is one of the healthiest forms of therapy. So laughter is not going away. So thus, improv is not going away. Comedy’s not going away. And one could say theater’s not going away for that reason because we can all use a little escapism.
[Claire]: Thank you for listening to Ghost Light, and thank you to Fruit Paunch, Third Wheel, and Latenite Theatre for chatting with me. If you have had any theater experiences that have been your “ghost light” during the pandemic, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tune in next time to hear more stories from the Columbia theater community.
Reported by Claire Schnatterbeck
Produced by Joshua Steele
Music by Matthew Lucia
Check out our other Pod-Tone 292 episodes!