Fringe Performers From Clowns to Magicians Adapting to New Normal of Social Distancing

Fringe performers are learning to navigate the new normal of social distancing in the world of entertainment

Clowning around during quarantine is no joke for fringe performers like Cody Hug. 

As a Ringling Brothers-trained clown, Hug never anticipated making people laugh would be such a challenge. Before coronavirus, the San Diego-based performer relied quite heavily on audience participation to help shape his performances. “My clown persona includes a very hands-on approach in order to help the audience experience my reality," he said. "Without their contribution, it is very difficult to complete many of my skits and gags.”

Hug is far from the only performer who's had to rethink his act in 2020. Gary Ferrar, a Manhattan magician and mentalist, also understands the obstacles faced by stage performers during the pandemic.

“It’s been a challenge trying to do similar material to my live show, but with completely different methods. Normally mentalism requires the use of subtlety, nuance, and body language. Essentially, everything that disappears when your audience is reduced to small two-dimensional pixelated images,” he said.

Ferrar has made modifications to his performances so that the art of magic translates over virtual video conferencing. “I feature as many screens as possible in my show. People respond well to seeing their friends and colleagues and it creates the ‘illusion’ of the large in-person events we’re all craving. I also leave lots of room in my performance for improvisation. People appreciate moments that wouldn’t happen with any other audience,” said Ferrar .

Christina Rodriguez is a NYC-based performer, puppeteer and puppet builder. She is the creator of ShakesBEARS, a mobile marionette show and web-series that introduces children to Shakespeare’s stories in a fun, visual, and unique way.

Rodriguez, like Hug and Ferrar, is learning to navigate the new normal of social distancing in the world of entertainment. “I never thought that virtual performances would be the only option. Not only does it feel like I’m re-imagining my actual shows, but I’m trying to figure out who is watching and why.  Where is the need?  How can I be visible?  What do people and families want right now?  What do I feel I can offer them?” said Rodriguez.

“The need for content feels insatiable right now," Rodriguez said. “Most of what I do now is pre-recorded. I film and then edit to release the videos on social media. But I make a special effort to speak directly to the audience. I ask them questions, make jokes, I’ve even started adding in some ‘crowd’ sound effects in my videos.”       

In Ferrar’s case his innovative techniques have actually led to an influx of business opportunities. Since the stay-at-home mandate went into effect, Ferrar has performed shows for various virtual events, including company happy hours, birthday parties and school assemblies. A surprising number of couples that have rescheduled weddings with Ferrar are choosing to have him perform for close family on their original date as well.

“Because travel rates don’t apply, clients who normally couldn’t afford to bring me to places like Germany and China, are now able to see my performance.  Sure, I don’t get to see the sight, but it’s still thrilling!” said Ferrar. 

But every art form differs in terms of execution. As such other entertainers, like Hug, have had a more difficult time finding work in a socially distant climate. “Now that we have this barrier, I can’t help but feel like a mime trapped literally in an invisible box,” said Hug, who has not performed since March and instead is using this time to focus on personal goals as well as helping others struggling during these times.

Hug is relying on his professional experience to combat negative thoughts and emotions. “We, as clowns, know how to distract from the chaos and environmental changes, and redirect the audience’s attention to something happier and light-hearted,” he said.

Rodriguez’s advice to her fellow puppeteers is to get out of the bubble. “It can be hard to only see what other people in your field are doing and start comparing yourself. But think about who might need your work now and how you can reach them. When I started thinking about how I could best serve my audience, that’s when I was able to start creating again,” she said.

The New York performer remains upbeat about the future of puppetry. Rodriguez is hoping to generate enough digital content to create online courses for schools and summer programs. She's currently co-producing a new online puppet cabaret in the style of a late-night talk show called “Puppet Spread” in collaboration with The Tank NYC,  a NYC-based non-profit arts presenter and producer.

For Ferrar, he's just trying to take it day by day. The entertainer is devoting all his mental resources to continually improving his virtual experience and encourages others to do the same.

“Try going virtual. Yes, your show will probably be awful the first few times. It won’t be the show you want, it will be unfamiliar, but with enough practice you’ll create… something," he says. "As performers, we’ve always been good at connecting people, and though it may be on different terms, that is still what people need, now maybe more than ever before.”