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Caffè Lena Set to Try Hosting Live Audiences Again (Exclusive)

The venue will not be selling tickets, inviting patrons in as a "live studio audience."

Sawyer Fredericks performing at Caffè Lena on October 25, as part of the venue's recent fundraising push. (Caffè Lena/YouTube)

No, you’re not seeing double. Back in early July, Caffè Lena’s Executive Director Sarah Craig confirmed to Saratoga Living that the historic Saratoga Springs folk venue would be reopening to a limited number of guests. There was even a slate of prescheduled programming, including a performance by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra on tap for the early but limited and socially distanced rush. The idea was to start with 25 percent capacity and go from there—just 12 seated parties. But with reports of COVID cases spiking around the country, the same day, Craig phoned Saratoga Living to tell us that she had had second thoughts and was postponing the initiative.

Now, more than three months later—and an August mandate from the governor’s office, banning ticketed or pre-promoted events of any kind at music venues to contend with—the venue is gearing up to try again, but from a different angle.

The key to Caffè Lena’s decision lies in the fact that it has been operating since April as an “essential” venue, having been given the green light by the state to reopen as a broadcast space. In other words, bands and artists have been booked to play live shows in Caffè Lena’s listening room, with minimal staff present to oversee sound and a video system, and no audience watching the show live. The performances are “broadcast” (i.e. live-streamed) for free on its YouTube page. “We are now permitted by the governor’s office to have a ‘live studio audience,'” says Craig, which will be equivalent of 12 parties of one to three people, with a cap of 25 people, a little less than 25 percent capacity. “This does not mean that we are running a concert venue. It means that we are running a broadcast studio, and are allowed a limited live studio audience.” To that point, Caffè Lena will be in lockstep with the state’s rules regarding ticketed/promoted shows. No tickets will be sold to the upcoming shows, no food or beverage will be served during the shows, and everybody in attendance will have to be pre-registered and wear a mask for the entire performance. Guests will be ushered inside only just before the broadcast begins and must exit immediately afterwards. “They won’t be able to mingle with each other or with the artists,” says Craig. “But they will get to relax on couches, be in a room where music is being made, and cheer together for what’s happening onstage.”

So, how do you get on “the list,” if there isn’t technically one to start with? That, along with a number of other kinks, is being worked out at the moment, says Craig. “We will be scaling up availability over the next few weeks,” she says. “At this point, all of the artists on our schedule were booked with the understanding that the house would be empty. Some of them may be comfortable having an in-person audience, while others will not be.” She adds: “At this phase, we are simply letting our performers know that the option is available to invite friends and family, and we are asking their permission to invite a few of our most active supporters. In the meantime, we are surveying our wider audience to find out their level of comfort in returning to a space where a live musical performance taking place.”

Of course, Craig and her staff will be going about this second attempt at bringing back some “normalcy” to the venue with an eye towards keeping both artists and audiences safe and healthy. “We are determined to implement the highest standard of safety in order to establish that small venues are capable of operating in full compliance with the guidance that makes it possible for restaurants, movie theaters and gyms to reopen,” says Craig. “That’s what is needed in order to save the live music industry at this time.”

Saratoga’s Caffè Lena, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, is the oldest continuously operating folk venue of its kind in the US.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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