Laughter might not be the best medicine during a global pandemic—but it certainly helps. With a new era of social distancing, many stage entertainers are wondering how the industry will adapt moving forward.
For local comedians Leanne Schmidt and Marlene Strang, also known as “The Ladies,” the transition has been smooth.
In their latest drive-in, pop-up series “Ladies in Headlights,” the dynamic duo is putting smiles on the faces of quarantined audiences across the East Valley—in a safe and innovative way.
Their 15-minute June performances, which sold out in May, are set in Phoenix parking lots and showcase the “’90s moms” characters finding humor in even the most mundane of activities.
Tickets cost $19.99 per car—an ode to “mom life” and couponing, explains Schmidt—for a parking spot.
“To be able to pull up and have a human interaction that’s safe but still inspiring and that can make you laugh and forget about what’s going on around us. We just got so excited about that,” she tells Entertainer! Magazine.
The mothers are also partnering with local businesses to use their lots and draw in crowds, making for the ultimate “dinner and a show” experience.
“We are excited to create collaborations with local businesses,” Schmidt continues. “That was also a thing. I was like, ‘How great would it be if they [the viewers]can pull up and grab dinner or grab dessert and then pull up into our show?’ And then we’re promoting these businesses as well.”
So far, the biggest social-distancing obstacle has been finding ways to engage their audience, Strang says.
The Ladies, with the help of their business partner Steve Wilcox, encourage audience members to communicate via their car headlights and horns.
“Something important to us is that our audience contributes to the art experience,” Strang says. “Like we used the sound score, we asked them to beat their horns and respond to certain questions or we asked them to put on their windshield wipers.”
The Ladies have been an active presence in the East Valley’s performance art scene for quite some time, fusing dance, improv comedy and immersive theatre into an unclassifiable genre.
Because Strang and Schmidt come from dance backgrounds and share an interest in comedy, their performances embody a hybrid of both.
“If you look at our website, the first thing that you see is it’s not dance. It’s not theater. There’s certainly not a name for what The Ladies do,” Schmidt says. “We create immersive theater experiences, but it’s more of a sort of community feeling.”
Strang explains that their “’90s mom characters” are modeled in part on their experiences as young mothers.
“We draw from our lives as mothers and our family life and all of that,” she explains. “Those inspirations are what fuel our movement, dance theater and all of the stuff we do. There’s a lot of improvisation in the work as well.”
Aside from balancing their professional lives as educators with nursing babies and family life, Strang and Schmidt strive to make their content relatable to everyone, she continues.
It also varies depending on the site location, says Schmidt, which is why ticket holders aren’t informed of the venue until 24 hours beforehand.
“For example, we did a performance at the Clarendon Hotel,” Schmidt comments. “So, The Ladies were on a vacation there. The participants, those who came to the show, were getting a tour of the amenities.”
Since their inception, the comedians have strayed away from traditional venues, instead performing at places like bookstores and hotel roofs to blur the divide between audience and performer.
The Ladies agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged them to tap into their creative sides.
“We really had no plans to be presenting in a theater, which is an advantage at this time,” explains Schmidt. “As devastating as it is to see these other arts organizations and companies not have a place to perform, we in particular are not super affected by that, which is a wonderful thing.”
As The Ladies continue to find their footing in a post-lockdown era, many comedy clubs and entertainers—including the ranks of John Oliver and Taylor Garron—have shifted to live-streamed performances on websites like YouTube and Facebook.
Fellow stand-up comedian Steve Krause says his transition to the digital world was a struggle at first.
“It’s something that I had to adapt to and it has been difficult,” he shares. “Everyone came out with a podcast or live videos and things like that. I was constantly trying to figure out, ‘What can I do that’s unique that others aren’t doing?’”
Krause, who was born with a rare disease that limits the use of his arms and legs, has been a staple in the region’s comedy scene for the last 13 years.
Turning lemons into lemonade, the Mesa resident creates laugh-out-loud content centered around his life with arthrogryposis, as well as his every-day experiences as a husband and father.
“I feel that when I’m on stage, people are really into what I have to say,” the comic expresses. “I think the most rewarding thing about it is that I can be me and not have to feel like I’m being judged, you know? I can finally have a platform to say what I really want to say.”
A regular at the Tempe Improv and Stand Up Live, Krause has worked with renowned comedians like Russell Peters, Pablo Francisco, Carlos Mencia and Robert Schimmell.
He was the runner up in AZ Funniest Comedian in 2016 and gained national attention when he got out of his wheelchair to climb the famous “Rocky Steps” in Philadelphia.
Much like The Ladies, Krause has been spending his newfound freedom leaning into his creativity as well.
“I think creativity-wise, this helped because you had time to really focus on what you wanted to do so you could expand from that live audience and into that social presence,” he says.
Again, it’s just figuring out ways to separate yourself from another comedian. It might be the same thing, but you’re doing it a little differently and that gets people to stop scrolling.”
Krause has posted numerous videos to his Facebook profile, Steve “ShortBus” Krause, including conversations with his young daughter discussing why he’s in a wheelchair and unboxing videos of products he’s purchased online.
Despite rising to the challenge, Krause says he is eager to get back to the stage.
“When you’re doing comedy, part of the comedy is being on stage telling your joke and then getting that laugh,” he says.
Renowned comedian and Gilbert resident Jill Kimmel agrees.
Kimmel, who has been doing stand-up globally since 2006, says nothing compares to a live audience.
“The best thing is that immediate feedback,” she says. “There is no mistaking whether you did well or not.”
Kimmel’s brand is built upon her observations on divorce, dating and raising kids on five overseas tours for the military.
She is the writer and star of the bi-weekly, “What A Mouth” Facebook video series and has performed on the LOL Pro Show at the 2018 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal.
“I’m a storyteller, so you’re not going to get punchlines and like jokey-jokes. I will tell stories of mainly things that have happened—like my boyfriend is 14 years younger than me,” she says with a laugh.
Not only was she recently cast on Comedy’s Central’s “Kevin Hart Presents: Hart of the City,” she is also the executive producer of the Zappos’ Double Down Comedy Experience.”
Before statewide lockdowns began in March, Kimmel had a Vegas residency at the comedy club owned by her brother, Jimmy Kimmel. Her shows have since been cancelled until further notice.
The New York native says she was initially reluctant to take her talents online.
It wasn’t long before she bit the bullet and participated in zoom shows with Nowhere Comedy Club and Social Distance Comedy.
“You have to adapt. Stand up is very much like anything else. It’s like going to the gym,” Kimmel says. “You’re feeling really good and you’re doing good and then you take a couple months off and get back and your muscles are sore.”
Digital comedy clubs like Nowhere Comedy Club are becoming a presence online, she adds.
According to its website, NoWhere is the “world’s first fully digital comedy club” that offers a “full comedy club experience from the comfort of your home.”
Comedians like Jeff Dye, Erica Rhodes and Godfrey are among the talent featured at the club.
“It has all these great comedians, all these big names coming in,” Kimmel says. “You’re like getting this great show for next to nothing; they are a lot cheaper because you’re home.”
As Arizona begins to reopen, Kimmel already has several live shows lined up, including at the House of Comedy on Wednesday, June 3, and Stand Up Live from Thursday, June 4, to Saturday, June 6, with Brad Williams.
Nonetheless, Kimmel says she believes the quarantine has shaped the future of the industry forever—and for the better.
“There are so many comedians that you may not have been able to see before. It’s like, what a great treat,” she says. “We’ll go away and bring back live comedy for sure. But these online shows are definitely here to stay.”