woman on stage

Three days after the Lower East Side venue Caveat closed its doors to the public, Sarah Rose Siskind stood alone on its stage, preparing for an audience she couldn’t see. With comedy clubs across the city shutting down, Caveat’s co-founder Ben Lillie became one of the first to attempt streaming shows online. Siskind, the guinea pig for this approach, was making some last-minute changes to her act. “Caveat has a license to play copyrighted music in the theatre, but not on a live stream—and my show is built almost entirely around copyrighted music,” she explained. She gave a wry smile and brandished a ukulele. “I pretty much know three songs, and they’re all sad, so . . .”

“ ‘Losing My Religion’ sounds great on a ukulele,” Lillie said. He headed toward the tech booth at the back of the theatre, passing shelves full of skulls, ammonites, and planetary models. Caveat, which opened in 2017, styles itself as a hub for “smart entertainment,” and the fact that many of its performers are researchers or science educators by day proved useful in drawing up an action plan for the pandemic. One show, “Doctors Without Boundaries,” is m.c.’d by E.R. physicians who now find themselves on the front lines of New York’s coronavirus response. When its co-host Andres Mallipudi began to show symptoms of Covid-19 but remained determined to participate remotely, the club realized the broadcast could be a model for all events going forward. Lillie, who lives two doors down, can come into the space as needed, but he said he wouldn’t ask a performer to do the same, especially if doing so required taking public transportation.

Siskind also lives nearby. She’s done standup at a number of local clubs, but Caveat was the only one, by then, that had moved online—perhaps in part because of the challenges posed by remote comedy. “Steve Colbert’s monologue was the creepiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, laughing as she recalled the eerie silence of a studio without an audience. “So dystopian! So, when my audience just can’t contain their laughter . . .” She used her phone to cue a tinny laugh track.

“It, uh, it clearly sounds electronic,” Lillie called from the tech booth.

“Oh, that’s the whole point,” Siskind replied brightly.

Siskind’s good cheer is representative. “Everyone’s pretty game,” Lillie said. “We’re an experimental space, so this is what our performers do. We have this little three-camera setup. We play with new formats and new things, and live streaming is something we’ve wanted to do—we’ve just never had a reason to pull the trigger. So, here we go!”

Onstage, Siskind chatted with one of the academics set to appear on her show, whom she had called for a remote sound check. “Last night I watched ‘Contagion,’ ” she confessed. “It’s the worst thing to watch, but everything else is not interesting to me. I watched ‘The Omega Man’ before that. I’m just making my way through the list.” She sighed and ducked behind the abandoned bar, emerging with a beer. “I was hoping that this show would be something familiar, you know? Something kind of off topic from corona.” But, with half an hour to go, technical difficulties still loomed: she noted the sputtering projector and made a diplomatic reference to a certain demographic whose members were struggling to navigate Zoom.

“The boomers?” the academic asked.

“I was trying to say boomers, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it,” Siskind replied. “I feel bad making fun of them, given the coronavirus. They’re having a tough time!”

She continued to call remote guests, finalizing her lineup. After some troubleshooting, Lillie reappeared.

“There is no way we’re going to get through this without insane levels of mistakes,” Siskind told him, smiling.

“It’s endearingly we’re-all-making-shit-up-because-of-coronavirus!” he said. They tapped elbows.

Minutes before airtime, the lights dimmed. “This way, I can pretend there are people in the audience—they just hate me, and they’re being super quiet,” Siskind said. “So, much better!” She cradled her ukulele, plucked the opening chords of Lady Gaga’s “Angel Down,” and started to sing. ♦


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