As lockdown set in last spring, many arts and community groups pivoted quickly to reaching their audiences online, but even among them, Red Rock Coffee's Open Mic Night may be something of a record-holder.
Right from the start of stay-at-home orders in spring 2020, the well-loved weekly open mic night went virtual — and stayed that way for 19 months, up until Oct. 4. That was the day that the downtown Mountain View cafe welcomed back in-person open mic performances for the first time since March 2020.
"It's been really exciting to have everybody back together. The community seems to be just really joyous to be in proximity to each other again. It's been fun to just have people performing live and providing live music for the public," said Jake Wichman, who hosts Red Rock's open mic night.
The weekly open mic night takes place Mondays, 6 to 9 p.m. on the second floor of Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View, offering 10-minute slots to musicians, poets, comics and other performers to get up on stage and share their work.
When the event went virtual last year, the idea was to go online for "a few weeks," but, like everyone's plans in March 2020, that timeline kept extending. The online gathering offered an important outlet for people beyond artistic expression, Wichman said, especially when quarantine first started. In fact, for the virtual edition, Wichman began hosting two online meetups a week.
The start of the virtual open mic "was actually a really beautiful time because it gave people in the community something to turn to," he recalled. "During lockdown, when they couldn't go out and see people, but twice a week they were able to get on Zoom, and be with friends and be in a supportive group and not only just share art, but we were also able to bond and share our common struggle with what we were all going through during quarantine."
Wichman said that a group of about a half-dozen performers regularly attended the virtual open mic nights and have made the leap to performing in person once again.
"They were all very thrilled to come back. We've all bonded so much over the last year and a half that it's been fun that we're finally able to all hang out in person again," he said.
In order to return to in-person performances, the open mic night underwent a few changes to ensure safety for guests and staff.
Masks are required regardless of guests' vaccination status, although performers aren't required to wear masks while onstage. Plenty of hand sanitizer is available, mics will have disposable covers and instruments and other equipment will be wiped down between each performer.
But the biggest shift may be in how participants sign up to perform. Pre-pandemic, the event relied on a first-come, first-served signup format, but now the event is using a lottery system, Wichman said.
Instead of participants having to arrive early enough before the start of open mic night to snag a spot on the lineup, signups are now held between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. The new format aims to keep a crowd from lining up prior to the event to wait for the signup sheet. But a lottery system should also allow attendees more flexibility, so even if they can't get to Red Rock in time for the start of open mic night, they still might have a chance to perform.
"So, people no longer need to show up early and they can even sign up until halfway through the show," Wichman said.
"That was one thing in our old system that kind of kept some people away was (the thought) 'I have to get there early to get in line,'" he added.
Wichman has even created a video explainer about what to expect at Red Rock's open mic nights now, and how the new system works.
Things might be a little different from the last time participants took the stage, but the sense of community fostered by the event, whether online or in person, seems to have only grown.
"This is the place I recommend to everyone. Because it's been the most accommodating and bolstering and they give you time. It doesn't seem as though people are just looking for their next spot," said performer Devin Begley at a recent open mic night.
"I'm overjoyed to be back. It's great to have everybody here and we would love for people from the old season, and new performers who are up and coming to come check out our open mic. It's a place where you will be supported by an attentive audience and a non judgmental group of fellow performers," Wichman said.