San Jose groups take entertainment online as stay-home order drags on
Improv actors put on a virtual show for San Jose's ComedySportz. Photo courtesy of ComedySportz

ComedySportz San Jose has hosted performances in a theater downtown for 33 years, but in March began livestreaming its shows on Zoom for a fast-growing audience.

In one recent show, an improv comedian was tasked with giving CPR to a “dummy,” so she looked to her right and said, “Dennis, my boyfriend, come here.” A referee in a separate Zoom window blew his whistle to eliminate her for telling what he deemed to be a bad joke.

The comedians perform from home where there is no live crowd to laugh or boo, but a steady growth in consumers — from 75 viewers last month to 180 viewers in late April — is a good sign, said Jeff Kramer, founder of ComedySportz San Jose.

While San Jose residents shelter in place, many organizations have transitioned their services to virtual platforms. The city of San Jose has even compiled a list of virtual tours for residents on its website.

Fellow theater company City Lights, the Winchester Mystery House and the Children’s Discovery Museum have produced online content during the pandemic that has shuttered businesses and kept residents stuck inside since mid-March.

The Children’s Discovery Museum launched a Virtual Purple Museum last month and has since seen a 1,088 percent increase in Twitter engagements. The organization said it has also gained 188 percent more Facebook followers than the previous quarter.

“We’re extremely pleased and proud of these numbers,” said Cecilia Clark, interim director of marketing and communications.

The Children’s Discovery Museum broadcasts seven to 10 shows per week on Facebook. The programs range from DIY art shows to interviews with professional scientists to content for toddlers. The museum also uploaded a library of educational videos and tutorials for at-home activities.

“Just because we’re closed and people can’t come to the museum, our mission to foster creativity, curiosity and lifelong learning for the children and families in our community doesn’t stop,” said Clark, who cried briefly when talking about fellow employees and their efforts to work from home.

The museum hasn’t monetized any of its content but is asking for donations.

ComedySportz San Jose initially requested donations from viewers, but Kramer said it felt “weird” asking people for donations during a pandemic, so the company set a sliding scale price of $10 to $50 to watch its shows.

The Winchester Mystery House launched its Immersive 360 Tour on Wednesday. The estate began hosting tours in 1923, but for the first time ever, people can roam the 24,000-square-foot mansion online.

The secret passageways, the doors to nowhere and the rest of the house were captured by 360-degree cameras by Sunnyvale-based Matterport Inc. The house also advertises rooms that were previously inaccessible in standard tours.

“We are striving to follow in (Sarah Winchester’s) footsteps by offering an innovative way for guests to explore the mansion unlike ever before,” Walter Magnuson, general manager for the Winchester House, said in a press release. “We are asking the community to help us maintain this important historical landmark until we can once again welcome guests in person.”

Much like ComedySportz, City Lights nearly went from zero to 100 in terms of online content.

The company had to cancel its performances for an original play “Coded” the day before its opening night. However, City Lights uploaded an unplugged recording of a preview performance for people to watch at home. The company said 530 people claimed free tickets to access the stream and 125 viewers made donations.

City Lights this month introduced a new online segment called The Next Stage — which airs on Facebook every Friday evening. These livestreams consist of play readings, dance lessons and musical performances.

ComedySportz and City Lights said their fans love the interactive features that let them correspond with the performers in real time.

“The most interesting thing that we’ve discovered is that we have the ability to do a lot more traveling now,” Kramer said.

Taking advantage of this virtual concept, ComedySportz began doing head-to-head battles against 25 other U.S. and European cities with ComedySportz. Unlike in a theater, fans can vote in live polls to determine match winners.

Kramer and Lisa Mallette, the executive artistic director of City Lights, said they like the turnout for the virtual content and think this might expand their brands once everything goes back to normal. However, Kramer said there might not be enough interest for virtual performances once in-person shows return.

“At first it was just out of curiosity among people to see if it would work,” Kramer said. “When we shut our doors, our performers really missed the idea of performing.”

Contact Luke Johnson at 18johnson.luke@gmail.com and follow @Scoop_Johnson on Twitter.

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