WILMINGTON — Thalian Hall may have halted indoor concerts, theatre productions and other live performances through the pandemic, but outside its doors in Innes Park, a makeshift stage atop the great white steps at Thalian’s Princess Street entrance welcomes back performers. On Oct. 23, Thalian Hall will host its third Showcase in the Park, featuring sets by local comedians.
“We have been discussing the use of the Princess Street portico as a stage and hosting an audience in Innes Park for some time,” Thalian’s executive director Tony Rivenbark said. “As it became clear that the resumption of live performance indoors was not going to take place in the near future, we took a look at what kind of events would make economic sense. Also, the cooling off with the weather was a factor.”
The showcase seats 75 audience members, positioned 6 feet apart. Concessions are open and separated from patrons by plexiglass. Everyone— volunteers who man the event and people who attend— is required to wear masks per Covid-19 protocols.
The series welcomed comedians last Friday and reggae musicians on Saturday. “We had about 60% capacity for the first event and about 75% capacity for the second,” Rivenbark said.
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Joining this Friday’s lineup are local comedians Tony Castleberry, Lew Morgante, Billy Raim and Wills Maxwell Jr., with Alex Denning emceeing the event.
Morgante has been doing standup for nine years now, offering audiences a dose of what he calls “self-deprecating storytelling.” The comedian’s set revolves around life experiences—his favorite involving an order of fast-food fried chicken. Lately, Covid-19 has provided him new fodder.
“Being locked up at home, recently married, has allowed the material to ‘write itself,’” Morgante said.
Comedian Billy Raim, also performing a 20-minute set on Friday, says he can relate. He was tightly packed into his home with his partner, their daughter and two pre-teen sons over the last seven months.
“I have been forced to completely rework how to live together in this bubble,” Raim said. “It’s been super wonderful and absolutely terrifying and frustrating at the same time. But I wouldn’t change a thing. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?”
It’s nothing new for Raim to get personal in his material. Yet, one topic he steers clear of, especially in this day and age: politics. “I don’t believe politics have a place in comedy,” he stated.
While Tony Castleberry takes on current events, like climate change, or movements, like social justice and the fight for equality, the two-and-a-half year comedian puts politics on the back burner, too. Mainly, he claims it’s on a different level he has yet to master.
“It takes most comedians many years to get comfortable doing bits about politics, and I’m just not there yet,” he admitted. “I’d rather [comedy] be a place to escape all of that.”
Castleberry prides himself on making pork skins controversial, and doesn’t back away from death, drugs, drinking, substance abuse and recovery. Like his fellow comics, he embraces jokes about Covid-19, with an absurd and observational bent. He calls it disingenuous to write new material right now without acknowledging the virus’ impact worldwide.
“We’re all thinking about it, so I try to share personal experiences from these last few months in a unique and, hopefully, funny way,” he said.
Castleberry touches on the hoarding consumerism of soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, yet questions the extinction of Lysol.
“Lysol has apparently gone the way of the dinosaur,” he said. “We live in a Microban world now. Act accordingly.”
Castleberry’s love for comedy found its footing back in the ‘70s and ‘80s after he discovered Richard Pryor’s “Is It Something I Said?” from his stepdad’s vinyl collection.
“My parents didn’t want me to hear the cursing, which made me want to hear it even more,” he recalled. “Pryor was so unique and hilarious and honest, and I was pretty much hooked right away.”
Wills Maxwell—who’s been doing standup for a decade and can be seen in the WWAY segment, “What Did We Miss?—looked toward old-school variety shows and late-night television hosts in youth for inspiration. Flip Wilson, Stephen Colbert and Eddie Murphy stand out as icons.
“They commanded the room with their wit and everything about that was appealing to me,” he said.
“But I’m going to spend my whole time talking about how happy I am to see people again,” Maxwell said of his set.
Morgante shares his sentiment. “I haven’t seen my comedy friends in forever and I’m pretty excited to do so.”
Rivenbark concurs the camaraderie garnered from live arts has suffered greatly from the spread of novel coronavirus. Though Thalian has done a few virtual performances, it’s been stripped of its value, not only in hard numbers (the iconic cultural hub has suffered 70% loss in income and half of its staff) but in its reach of community-building.
“Thalian Hall is all about bringing people together for a shared performance experience,” Rivenbark said. “There is no substitute, so for those people that have devoted their lives to that world, at this time, they feel very incomplete.”
Discussions are underway to continue the Showcase in the Park series, as Thalian continues to ease back into operations. So far it’s relaunched the weekly Cinematique film series and has begun theater tours.
“We are looking at doing [more] live events indoors, but our capacity is limited to 25 people right now,” Rivenbark said.
This new outdoor series ups the capacity somewhat, at least.
Comedy Showcase in the Park takes place Friday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 at thalianhall.org.