Jeffrey Gaines performing at the People's Light Drive-In Concert Series.

At the Drive-In, Philly, Part 1: How People’s Light turned their parking lot into an intimate concert venue

In the next week, dosage MAGAZINE and I will be looking at one of the more curious aspects of Covid-19 relief, in the present-day use of the drive-in. The once antiquated but still coolly romantic idea of a good time – piling people into a car, seeing a movie outdoors on a giant screen, listening to a flick’s action through a tiny, tinny speaker – has come roaring back into vogue due to the pandemic, and its cleverly ordained potential as a way to see things such as films, live concerts and theatrical productions, outside and socially distanced from other viewers doing likewise. 

While next week, we’ll head to Citizens Bank Park to see how Live Nation is using the old school drive-in format for its live, outdoor music and comedy showcases, this weekend, we’re in Malvern and People’s Light, the longtime, legendary theater and company at 39 Conestoga Road.

Starting with last week’s sold-out John Flynn Band show, the People’s Light shows begin at 6:30pm, run about 75 to 90 minutes, with tickets going for $75 per car (limited to 5 passengers). For that price, audiences get a parking space and adjacent “Home Space” to set up lawn chairs, or lean on the car. Plus, booze and snacks can be pre-ordered from The Farmhouse at People’s Light.

Coming up on Saturday, August 8 is the Philly jazz-hip hop collective, Ill Doots, August 14 with the bluegrass Colebrook Road, and bluesman Greg Sover’s Band on August 21.

Zak Berkman, Producing Director, gave me the skippy.

A.D. Amorosi: How was last weekend’s showcase? Zak Berkman: Last Saturday’s concert went wonderfully. Like the prior two in this series, the show was sold out, our parking lot filled with couples and families thrilled to be out of their houses, hearing live music, and enjoying this surreal summer in as safe a way as possible.

A.D. Amorosi: I don’t think most theater audiences know People’s Light for its concerts. What gives? 
Zak Berman: In recent years we’ve made a significant investment in including more music in our programming. We have produced new concert-plays by Loudon Wainwright III (“Surviving Twin”) and Jonatha Brooke (“My Mother Has Four Noses”) along with new music-driven theatre about iconic musicians and performers like Nat “King” Cole, Nina Simone, and Woody Guthrie. This concert series feels very much like an extension of that impulse. We envision our campus becoming more and more a go-to location for live music and the sense of community and joy remarkable musicianship can inspire.

A.D. Amorosi: How did the live shows in a drive-in setting come about and who are you working with as bookers? 
Zak Berman: We worked with Point Entertainment to schedule a diversity of bands and performers, but we have found a uniform experience over the first four concerts. People are so eager to get out of their houses and feel their hearts beat in sync with others again, even if they need to be separated in their individual “home spaces” with cars to their sides throughout the show. They arrive with smiles in their eyes (ah, those masks), each voicing excitement and relief at the opportunity to be outside, to sit in their lawn chairs, eat, talk, and listen to great music.

A.D. Amorosi: Are you and your staff interacting with the crowds coming out of the cars, just to make sure they’re playing according to Hoyle? 
Zak Berman: We check in with the audiences throughout the show, keeping socially distant and masks on. One time there was a couple sitting in their chairs in the back of a red pick-up truck, the sun had just angled towards them and they had their hands up to shade their eyes. I was concerned they might be put off by the bit of glare. Instead, when I approached them and asked how they were doing they beamed. “This is great. This is just great. Do more.” They said. And that’s been pretty much the reaction of everyone. As they leave they wave, give thumbs up, honk their horns. It’s very celebratory. The entire spirit of the event… for the audiences, artists, and staff is one of being in this mess together and trying to make the best of it.

A.D. Amorosi: How much do you miss live theater at your place? 
Zak Berman: It’s heartbreaking not to be able to bring people into our buildings and tell stories in the way People’s Light has been doing for 45 years. What a bizarro anniversary year this had been. But we are so grateful to have the outdoor space we have and be able to continue to invite our neighbors to experience live art. This is yet one more expression of our mission. We strive to be a cultural and civic center with theatre at our core. The theatres are empty for the moment, but our gardens and our parking lots can still be places of wonder and joy.

A.D. Amorosi: How did you even know a drive-in gig would work there?Zak Berman: From a practical standpoint, we staged our “Test Drive” concert on June 27th and since then have been refining our approach to these events as we learn more, keeping safety as the priority at all points. From the start, our artists have had a dedicated green room, dressing room, and backstage locations where the public does not go. That has been consistent throughout. We added a second registration tent to make arrival more efficient. We shifted the location of the merchandise tent to ease the exit at the end of the concert. Our Farmhouse restaurant has adjusted the menu for audience members to order in advance, and we now have concession carts that our staff wheel through the parking lot throughout the concert. All the staff is the staff of the theatre so we are collectively hugely invested in making sure these events place public health as the top priority. So far everything has run very smoothly.

Valentina Sounds.

A.D. Amorosi: Do you want to keep doing the drive-in concerts after this run? 
Zak Berman: We are considering extending the series into the fall and looking at various options for either nighttime or daytime concerts. There’s clearly a desire for these kinds of events and we only imagine the hunger for escape and exhale will increase amidst the stresses of the school year, the brain-battering media onslaught of an election season, and all that comes with this unrelenting pandemic.

Images: Charles T. Brastow.

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