Then the lights dimmed and the show began. As laughs flooded the room, White began to cry.
“We were worried,” White says. “Would there not be enough people in the showroom to make for a really great environment? But once you started hearing the people laughing, once you can see that people were clearly happy to be there and not fearful to be there, it was just a huge, huge sense of relief. You heard people cheering that the club is back, and that meant a lot because it’s been a long year.”
After initially reopening thanks to a waiver from the District, the DC Improv now operates under citywide regulations that allowed live entertainment venues to function at 25 percent capacity as of May 1. For the past month, often sold-out crowds have returned to the Improv to again indulge in subterranean stand-up, with New York-based comic Carmen Lynch headlining this weekend’s shows.
“It’s just a little more intimate now, right?” says assistant general manager Antoine Griffin, the club’s point man on coronavirus protocols. “We went from having 300 people almost in the room to just 50 people at the moment. So you can say that we went from having a very close and intimate experience to a more spread out and intimate crowd experience.”
That audience experience now begins with Griffin guiding guests through a health questionnaire and temperature check. The menus are single use, and high-contact surfaces are sanitized regularly. Recent renovations to the club include HVAC upgrades, contactless bathroom features and sanitizer stations, in addition to new floors, carpets and paint.
Comedians, meanwhile, are asked to stay masked backstage, with some performers shuttled to the Improv’s lounge — not yet reopened for shows — to avoid crowding the green room. The tradition of one comic shaking hands and passing the microphone to the next remains on hold. But for a stand-up such as Lynch, who has spent the pandemic focused on Zoom performances, rooftop shows and podcast tapings, returning to club comedy is a salve all the same.
“There’s almost like a more relaxed vibe to these live shows now,” says Lynch, who resumed indoor performances last month in New York. “We’ve all gone through something traumatic, and we’re all kind of trying to reestablish ourselves, and people are enjoying coming out again.”
Fiscally, the club doesn’t expect to break even — or even come close — on reduced-capacity shows. Although Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said Monday that D.C. will lift restrictions on most businesses and public venues by May 21, White says it is unclear whether that includes the Improv. In the meantime, the smaller crowds represent a chance for the venue to ease back into traditional operations.
“It’s absolutely a money-losing proposition,” White says. “Whether you’re performing for 50 people or 200 people, you’ve still got to pay for the hotel room for the comic, you’ve still got to do all the same amount of work on the marketing end, so long term, this is not a sustainable situation. But for now, we’re viewing this as kind of like, hey, we’ve got to get back into this, we need to get audiences ready for this, because it’s a process.”
As the Improv ramps up its indoor shows, the club is not abandoning the alternate offerings that helped it stay afloat for the past year-plus. The upcoming calendar features an array of Zoom options, including open mics, improv classes and comedy competitions. Having produced a number of outdoor shows during the pandemic, the Improv is teaming up with the Bullpen in Southeast to host a showcase next week at the open-air venue, featuring local comics Paris Sashay, Danny Rouhier and Lafayette Wright.
“In society, in the world right now, I think comedy is necessary,” Sashay says. “I’m more than excited for the return [of comedy], indoor and outdoor. I think that it’ll take a lot of stress off of people’s shoulders when they realize how much they’ve been needing to laugh during this entire process.”
DC Improv, 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-296-7008. dcimprov.com.
Dates: May 13-15 at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Prices: $50-$60 per pair.
Wednesday Night Live
The Bullpen, 1201 Half St. SE. thebullpendc.com.
Dates: May 19 at 7 p.m.