Newcastle Comedy Festival brings COVID-inspired laughter to socially distanced audiences

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Comedy legend Rove McManus perhaps summed it up best in opening remarks during his COVID-safe performance at the Newcastle Comedy Festival: “Nothing says fun like ‘are you ready for a big afternoon of comedy?'”

It might have been packed, but matinee audience members were seated 2 square metres apart, following COVID-safe measures announced by Newcastle Civic Theatre management in September.

The gig, featuring Nina Oyama, Randy Feltface, Sam Taunton and others, was also split into two sittings to cater for the audience demand.

“There will always have to be like a certain amount of space left, so that people can’t breathe on each other, or whatever.”

Oyama, well-known to audiences as Courtney from the ABC comedy series Utopia, summed up the relief expressed by many of the comics backstage.

“The sense of returning to normal is coming back, which is really lovely, because for so long it was so intense,” Oyama said.

Comedian Nina Oyama backstage with a camera operator and a reporter
Comedian Nina Oyama backstage before performing at the Newcastle Comedy Festival.(Supplied: Grant Gibbins)

“I’m from Sydney, so it’s been like that for a little while now.

“That slow kind of dip into being able to go outside and not wearing masks all the time and learning to check in places.

COVID ‘good for online comedy’

For local comedian Elliot Stewart the enforced lockdown has made connecting with live audiences difficult.

“COVID has not been good for comedy,” Stewart said.

“It’s been good for online comedy, which I don’t like. I’m not a fan of it.”

Comedian Elliott Stewart performing at the Newcastle Civic Theatre.
Comedian Elliott Stewart performing at the Newcastle Civic Theatre.(Supplied: Grant Gibbins)

The 20-year-old comic has been participating in open mic events in both Newcastle and Sydney for the past three years.

“There was no comedy … because all the pubs were shut down (and) we couldn’t do any shows.

“It’s been good just to get back into it and, and try to build that momentum again.”

Comedian Sarah Gaul performing on stage with a piano at the Newcastle Civic Theatre.
Comedian Sarah Gaul performing on stage at the Newcastle Civic Theatre.(Supplied: Grant Gibbins)

Despite the downturn in the live performance sector, Newcastle-born comedian Sarah Gaul said she’d had a steady succession of gigs within the last two months.

“I am currently living in Sydney, where gigs have slowly started to come back,” Gaul said.

“My last gig was about two weeks ago … but during COVID there were six months where I didn’t have a single live show.”

COVID provides ‘so much content’

As for whether she believed the pandemic had been good for comedy, she admitted people’s aversion to wearing masks had provided her with new material.

“The things that the people get really mad about, there’s so much content,” Gaul said.

“And just like people who are so self-involved — you know, not social distancing, not wearing a mask — there’s so much good satire that’s come out of that as well.”

Image of the audience space from the stage of the Newcastle Civic Theatre
Newcastle Comedy Festival was a sell-out.(Supplied: Grant Gibbins)

Nina Oyama said the lockdown, while anxiety inducing, had also been a good time for writing new material.

“A lot of people have spent time inside writing, and I’m kind of the same,” Oyama said

“I’ve been developing a few comedy shows and [I’ve] been lucky enough to do some COVID-safe acting here and there.”

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