The dance floor at the Good Will Social Club is looking more like a living room these days — Joanne Rodriguez’s living room, to be exact.
"I contributed stuff that I thought would look fun… those are my funny curtains, those are my funny pictures," Rodriguez says over the phone, referring to the black velvet poodle paintings and frilly drapery affixed to a freshly painted yellow wall in the otherwise black bar.
The colourful set is the backdrop for the Good Will Stay Home Club, a new virtual variety show launched last month by the Portage Avenue music venue. Rodriguez, a former bartender and longtime MC at the club, plays host along with a dozen or so puppets. The plush, googly-eyed cast sets the show apart in a sea of online entertainment and offers a clever workaround to pandemic restrictions.
"Everything is funnier with a puppet and you can get away with a lot more stuff," Rodriguez says. "We’re trying to keep our crew as minimal as possible… if we have two people on puppets, then that’s four (characters) I get to interact with and we’re still keeping our numbers really low and safe."
The rest of the Stay Home Club crew is made up of Good Will co-owners Cam Loeppky and Mike Requeima, assistant manager Tom Elvers and self-described "barfly" Ava Julien — none of whom have prior experience making a variety show.
"The whole project is sort of out of necessity," Elvers says. "With all the (COVID-19) stuff and the bar being closed, we couldn’t have any live music here… so we had to figure out a way we can bring live music to people."
The show is modelled after cable-access television and each episode includes a livestreamed concert and pre-recorded skits with local businesses and community organizations. The pilot featured music by Sol James and Jonny Moonbeam, as well as a puppet makeover with drag queen Prairie Sky on behalf of Sunshine House. The creators hope to include viewer submissions in future segments.
The format and content is otherwise a work in progress.
"It’s still up in the air," says Elvers, who handles most of the videography and editing. "It’s OK if it looks a little bit janky, it’s OK if it’s a little rough around the edges because we’re just figuring this stuff out."
Julien, a standup comedian and actor, does script-writing and puppet personality development.
"I have little player cards for the puppets," she says. "I have their names and their backgrounds and what they should sound like… it’s one thing to put on a puppet and it’s another thing to be like, ‘I spent hours staring at it and giving it a whole story.’"
Gladys, for example, is a flirty, roller-haired, elderly woman who "has a crush on everyone," while Dezzy, a blue and purple being, is filled with questions and child-like wonder.
The puppets came from Kijiji, out-of-town puppet makers and a friend’s parents who hosted puppet shows at a bible camp — some viewers might recognize the characters from music videos by local pop-punk band Dangercat.
Working with puppets has taken some getting used to, both for guests and the Stay Home Club’s human crew.
"People instinctively feel a little bit foolish looking at a puppet and talking to it," Julien says. "They want to talk to whoever’s holding it."
At the moment, the project is funded by grants from Safe at Home and Kinaxis InConcert. Elvers believes there’s a place for virtual programming at the club post-pandemic and is looking for ways to monetize the venture.
"We can’t do it for free down the line," he says. "We’re going to be urging the community to try and help keep it going."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.