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Virtually Provincetown

by Steve Desroches

By the 1880s tourism was firmly established as a major industry in the United States. With the Civil War over and the rapid economic expansion of the Gilded Age, previously unprecedented numbers of Americans had free time and money to spend on relaxation and fun. The societal and economic shift came at the right time for Provincetown as the whaling industry tanked, harming the town that ranked only behind New Bedford and Nantucket in wealth generated by the hunt and harvest for whale oil. As Provincetown shifted its economy toward tourism, a cultural phenomenon occurred with the birth of the live entertainment scene the Cape tip is so famous for. Entertainers from far and wide came to land’s end to perform for the summer crowds, and over time that tradition evolved into something uniquely Provincetown. Live entertainment is so tightly woven into the fabric of Provincetown it’s in its DNA.

Zoe Lewis

So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and shuttered the theaters and cabarets of Provincetown, it delivered one of many gut punches to the community as the livelihoods of many evaporated, with no clear vision of when the darkened stages would shine again. Over the weekend of March 14, an already quiet Provincetown at first sputtered and then sped to a complete shutdown. Or so it would seem. By Sunday afternoon entertainers began to adapt. Provincetown burst into the virtual world. Sure, at this point online content is nothing new, but the old way lacked any direct attention, as it was more frequently used to promote a show rather than actually being the attraction. Over the past three months Provincetown performers have adapted to a new medium where the audience is scattered far and wide, and the applause is expressed via flying emojis and a stream of comments, as well as tips sent via Venmo and Paypal. In the process, both the entertainers and Provincetown itself have expanded their reach and reputation in a much larger way.

“It’s opened up this new and exciting way of reaching an audience using something that previously seemed dominated by the news or cat videos,” says Russ King, better known Miss Richfield 1981. “It’s been great, really great. Like everyone else I lost all of my gigs for months, but I’m not only staying in touch with my established audience, but I’m now interacting with people who’ve never heard of Miss Richfield or Provincetown. It’s been a whole new type of performance, and it took some time to get used to it, but it’s been amazing.”

Miss Richfield 1981

Via her own website and on various social media platforms Miss Richfield presents two shows weekly: Bingo Bonanza and her Pajama Party, soon to shift to Miss Richfield’s Trivia Shack. It takes a team of five to present the interactive shows, which now often attract over 1,000 viewers. Prior to the pandemic Miss Richfield’s online audience was pretty small. King echoes what many entertainers say in that before the pandemic any online content over three minutes couldn’t keep a virtual audience’s attention. Now, viewers tune in for a show that is an hour plus and moan in sadness when it’s over. It’s remarkable that something like a drag show, which is so tied to a live experience, can thrive online, at least for the time being. And the same is true for music and, in particular, the beloved Provincetown tradition of the sing-along piano bar.

Over that St. Patrick’s Day weekend when the pandemic became a life-altering reality for Provincetown, piano man Jon Richardson was performing at the Crown and Anchor Friday night. By Sunday he quickly shifted to an online platform, giving birth to his Virtual Piano Bar, the online platform where he still performs daily via Facebook Live, YouTube, and Instagram. Within a week he partnered with Jonathan Hawkins, a fellow entertainer and producer, to create Live from Provincetown, which partners with entertainers and venues throughout town to broadcast shows and virtual experiences. Live from Provi Doug Repetti; Brews Clues, a trivia show at the Provincetown Brewing Company hosted by Bob Keary and Harrison Fish, and Sunday Service Drag Brunch hosted by Mackenzie at the Pilgrim House. It’s been a smashing success as it continues to expand in viewership and scope of presentations.

“I really wanted it to be a service for the Provincetown entertainers and venues everyone loves so much,” says Hawkins. “I wanted it to be a way for the artists to stay relevant. And to bring Provincetown artists to the world.

Provincetown Brewing Company’s Brews Clues

Live from Provincetown will also help present a virtual beach party from the Crown and Anchor on the Fourth of July, and work with Ptown Gallery Stroll to create virtual art openings and exhibitions. Live from Provincetown is also trying to support artists not just by giving them a means to earn income via online tips, but by creating the Provincetown Performing Arts Fund, in cooperation with the Provincetown Commons and the Pallette Fund, to assist performers now and in the future, as even in the best of times life as an entertainer is a risky means of income.

With the democratic nature of the Internet, there are many performers doing online shows on their own with Provincetown favorite Zoe Lewis performing solo shows as well as a reimagining of her popular Speak Easy night as she presents Zoe Lewis and the Social Distancers, with guest stars performing outside through the window of the Brown Street home she shares with her partner, the Cigarette Girl, Sharon Topper. Drag stars Varla Jean Merman and Coco Peru and people like Seth Rudetsky, with his shows featuring the best of Broadway, can broadcast remotely, targeting not only their traditional Provincetown audiences, but those who have never even visited before. The Provincetown Theater, the Bradford Street performance that has reignited theater in Provincetown, is solely focusing on virtual programming, too, this summer with a weekly music show featuring John Thomas, as well as the popular Mosquito Story Slam.

“The challenge is how do we make it surprising and engaging,” says artistic director David Drake. “It’s amazing how creative people can be under pressure. We can’t wait for the audiences to return, but for now, this is a way to stay engaged and expand the scope and reputation of the Provincetown Theater. We’re working hard on some great stuff.”

Donnelly & Richardson

The silver lining of this overwhelming experience of the pandemic and the strange days we continue to live in is the exploration of this brave new world of creative options online. There is a common sigh released by every entertainer expressing the electric anticipation of the day when theaters and cabarets are once again packed. And while things remain uncertain, and thus, both planning and predicting the near future is nearly impossible, outdoor shows may be coming soon. Miss Richfield and Varla Jean Merman will be back in town anticipating the day when some form of entertainment is permissible under current public health regulations. It’s hard to say, but once things return to some semblance of normal, perhaps this fall or even next spring, Provincetown will burst open with the live entertainment that has become a top attraction. But this virtual aspect may become a permanent fixture, as time will tell if it’s become too popular to let go of completely. Traditional forms of mass media outside of town often make no room for many performers who come through Provincetown, or if they did there would be too many rules, regulations, and censorship to keep what makes their acts special. This DIY form of media is perfect to both preserve and protect the uniquely Provincetown voices expressed through live performance.

“I think that maintaining this way of seeing Provincetown artists will stay on in some form,” says Hawkins. “People have such a deep love for Provincetown in every way, and especially for its artists. So those who can make it to town, you know, if they can’t afford to come here anymore or can’t get time off to visit, this is a way to stay engaged and a way to reach more and more people about what Provincetown has to offer. I think it’s here to stay.”

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Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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