Despite COVID, the show goes on at the Derby

Halifax bar swaps big shows for intimate performances

These days, ordering a beer at The Derby Show Bar means passing along a Post-it note.

It’s one of the new safety measures put in place in the time of COVID-19, along with banquet seating and additional staff.

When infections were first reported on the East Coast in March, Shelley MacPhail, manager of the bar on Halifax’s Gottingen Street, suspected they might be in it for the long haul. That foresight helped them jumpstart the adjustment process.

“I feel like I just always knew,” MacPhail said. “We were talking 2021 right away.”

Shelley MacPhail stands behind the new bar of the Derby on Gottingen Street.   Jonathan Werbitt

The newly revived Derby (an ode to one of Halifax’s historic bars in the Black community), has been tailored for a new kind of performance: intimate and unique. New events such as variety shows, improv and comedy help to create a space that’s warm and welcoming.

Before the pandemic, it was a 700-person-capacity music venue — ripe for loud shows with dense crowds. Now it’s down to a capacity of 150. Round tables line the dance floor and the wine selection has grown considerably. Instead of vying for the bartender’s attention at the newly installed bar, patrons order drinks via notes, a move designed to reduce physical proximity and noise.

The space has owner and ex-set designer Victor Syperek’s fingerprints all over it. Model planes, mannequin limbs and motorcycles line the walls and ceiling. Syperek took it upon himself to renovate the entire room during the temporary closure last spring, with just one helper.

“I kind of remoulded the place for socially distanced live music,” he said.

In compliance with Nova Scotia’s reopening guidelines, MacPhail needs more staff and must adhere to a slew of new operating rules. Table service is the new norm as movement is discouraged whenever possible. Staff must wear protective equipment provided by the bar, and a host is now required to greet and seat guests.

As a multi-tiered establishment with several connected sections and rooms, extensive signage is needed to ensure safety. The downstairs Seahorse is cordoned off because, as MacPhail described, it’s not financially practical to keep it open. All of these changes affect their bottom line, but higher ticket prices and business from the connected Local is helping to offset the costs.

The bulletin board inside the Derby reminds guests to follow safety guidelines.   Jonathan Werbitt

With the virus still posing a threat, touring remains difficult and potentially dangerous for musicians. However, Nova Scotia performers like Darren Pyper are glad to be back on stage, even if they can’t travel far.

“Touring is definitely going be something difficult and obviously limited given what’s going on in the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world,” said Pyper, a Halifax rapper known as Ghettosocks.

Pyper performed at the Derby on Oct. 17 and remains confident with shows continuing on the home front. “I’m glad to be doing it, to be honest,” he said. “I’m OK with the restrictions and the safety precautions. It’s better than nothing.”

Despite all of the disruption, the change and the upheaval, MacPhail is choosing to look on the bright side.

“I think an injection of change has been a good thing,” she said. “The night is a little sweeter now.”

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