Like every performer in town who has been called back to action, Petra Massey sounds overjoyed to return to her stage in Atomic Saloon Show. “I felt like a bottle being uncorked,” the British-born comedian says of reopening May 5. “The rush I got after 13 months of not doing any shows or any kind of performance really hit me. It was amazing.”
The hit Spiegelworld show at the Grand Canal Shoppes at Venetian originally launched just a few months before the pandemic shut down the Strip, and many of its cast and crew were new to Las Vegas. Massey, on her second tour of Vegas duty (her comedy troupe Spymonkey served in the opening cast of Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity in 2003), began volunteering at her son’s school and ended up becoming an outreach facilitator and games teacher for five months, “just for my sanity and to help them out,” she says.
“It was such shaky ground. You didn’t know where you could walk or where the vacuum would suck you, because more and more bad news kept happening and more friends and family were affected. It was this global thing, and yet these beautiful positives happened as well, where people really came together.”
The local performing arts community absolutely did that, supporting each other in meaningful ways big and small. There were benefit events being livestreamed and virtual connections promoting self-care and home exercise routines. Less visible was a forced but obvious undercurrent of individual creativity and artistic exploration.
As the entertainers of Las Vegas continued to stay home and away from the live stage, scratching out a way to keep moving forward, new takes on old ideas bubbled up. Concepts simmered. First-time discussions and collaborations were sparked. New work began.
Massey says the landscape has changed quite a bit since her first arrival 18 years ago. On the Strip, Zumanity was laying the groundwork for the edgier Spiegelworld-style shows of today, prepping Las Vegas audiences for a different kind of fun. And the creative community has grown, spread out and diversified since then, too.
“I suppose all sorts of shows kind of paved the way very slowly for that step to happen,” she says. “Another show that [like Zumanity] is not on anymore but also trailblazing was The Miss Behave Gameshow [at Bally’s]—very cultish and so great—and I hope it might come back again. What happens with shows like this—and like Hot Trash, which is from another performer from Spiegelworld, Grace Lusk—is they are bringing a whole different kind of artist to Vegas. It’s opening up something very interesting from people who have a different creative bent, sort of producer-creators.
“In that way, Vegas is growing in an interesting and quite remarkable way, and I’m very excited to be here right now.”
Lusk, now performing in Absinthe at Caesars Palace, launched the Vaudeville-inspired peepshow Hot Trash with Troy Heard at his Majestic Repertory Theatre Downtown last month and extended it through June after a strong response. Similarly, a trio of tight-knit creatives from the cast and crew of Zumanity assembled the charming cabaret Apéro Show, now playing at Town Square’s Baobab Stage.
Strip performers have always dabbled here and there, popping up to sing a song at a local lounge or working on more significant side projects, striving to do something other than what they do five nights a week. But the unprecedented downtime over the past year accelerated what feels like a budding movement, putting motion behind ideas and turning side projects into the main gig.
“We had to put the brakes on everything, but creativity never stops,” says Cheryl Daro, an actor, director and producer. “Instead of performing someone else’s work, all of a sudden you have this space to create your own. And I think there’s going to an explosion in Las Vegas from this community, because all of these artists are going to be able to put these ideas into play.”
Daro has performed in shows on the Strip and in theatrical productions in New York and LA, but she might be best known here as the behind-the-scenes, binding force of Mondays Dark, hosted by her husband Mark Shunock, and their versatile off-Strip entertainment venue, the Space. (Disclosure: I’m a volunteer board member of the Mondays Dark nonprofit organization.) When they landed in Las Vegas more than eight years ago—around the time the Smith Center opened and helped catapult the cultural arts scene—Daro says it was easy to recognize how many talented performers and artists were here and connected, but there weren’t enough venues and organizations to support independent efforts.
“What I noticed was a disconnect in terms of people who could produce the content and venues that could handle a show. Specifically with theater, there was no access. You were doing community theater, something non-union or you were on the Strip,” she says. “I think now there’s a different mentality on the producer side, where you’re seeing smaller companies can offer equity contracts for things like that, and it’s building a middle ground from the community level up to the Strip.”
More local artists and producers cultivating new works will create the need for those venues, and vice versa. The Vegas Room, a true listening space that offers guests dinner and a show and artists a place to create and perform their own material, opened during the pandemic in the Commercial Center. Daro will sing and tell stories there on June 24 and 25.
The gears of this fascinating creative machine started turning long before the pandemic, but the pause forced those individual parts to consider themselves in a different way, and maybe more importantly, to envision a more efficient and beautiful path for collaborating with others.
“I’m hoping to see locals take notice of the artists that are here and the way they’re getting together, but also, on a national level, I hope that we get recognized for our community and not just for being performers in shows [on the Strip],” Daro says. “We are a very unique group of people, and there’s a really deep heart for the arts here. I’m hoping we get to see some really exciting pieces come out of this time, things that are really unique to this city.”
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