Unfortunately I am traveling (see above) and cannot write a full report on recent UCB happenings until later this week or next. But I do want to quickly share a few observations about what transpired at Saturday’s all-theatre meeting in LA, per an audio recording and discussions with people present.
1. First a bit of news. UCBTLA artistic director Beth Appel announced that this year's Del Close Marathon—whose move from NYC to LA was announced last year—will be closed to submissions from comedy groups across the country. Instead it will include only LA-based improv teams and UCBTNY teams willing to fly out.
This is what I'm talking about when I say what happens at UCB affects comedy communities nationally. For UCB's leadership, the DCM is a party celebrating UCB. (I am not being snarky—Besser said this explicitly.) For the hundreds of people who come from afar, it is a chance to meet and perform with comedians they might otherwise never meet, for audiences they might otherwise never be exposed to, under the auspices of comedy’s premier theatre. The loss should not go unstated.
A second bit of news is that Ian Roberts appeared to announce that house teams will no longer need to work with coaches. During a discussion late in the meeting about the expenses coaching incurs on talent, he said, “Would it be considered disingenuous if we just said nobody has to have a coach? Is that considered, like, ‘fuck you’ or something… Cause I don't have the money to pay it and you're still bothered. So how about for now, nobody has to have a coach."
Besser affirmed the decision. “You guys don’t have to have coaches anymore,” he said. “It’s up to you. That’s the thing we realized—we were like yeah, we are telling people they have to have coaches, and when we started we weren't told, we just did it. So if that makes it better ethically, great, that's the way it is.”
As a brief recap: in June the UCB 4 announced they would start paying coaches. Last month they postponed that plan indefinitely and said the announcement was made with a limited understanding of the company’s finances. Now they say teams need not work with coaches at all. This is a major change affecting one of the few revenue streams available to UCB performers, apparently made on impulse. It is worth questioning what other decisions were made similarly.
2. At one point in the meeting Matt Besser underscored the flaw in another of his longtime arguments against paying performers: that it would require judging some shows to be worth more than others, which will cause resentment among those deemed less worthy. Specifically he announced that as a cost-cutting measure, UCB's Sunset and Inner Sanctum spaces will be going dark a couple nights each week. This means some shows will be moved to other slots and some will be canceled, as will also happen with shows affected by UCB East's closure in New York. But Besser acknowledged that well-performing shows will probably go unscathed. "We also have to reward shows that do better," he said. "They get the comfort of their slot."
Later he was asked why UCB doesn't set up a tiered system where certain high-performing shows pay talent. He suggested, as he has said before, that this would defeat UCB's mission to give everyone a chance to find their comedic voice, with plenty of room to fail. When you value some voices and shows more highly than others, the argument goes, you ruin the whole vibe.
The problem is UCB has always done that. Any programming decision is a judgment of both artistic and financial value. Specifically it is a judgment that a show will appeal to a certain number of people and sell a certain number of tickets. The assignation of a desirable slot is a judgment that the show will appeal to enough people that it can sell most or all of those tickets. As a refresher, UCB charges money for those tickets.
One could quibble over whether the desirable slot and accompanying audience are themselves compensation. (One shouldn't; they're not.) But that's irrelevant to the fact that UCB is already doing the very normal thing it says would be mission-defeating to do. I am reminded of another common argument against paying talent: that it would require UCB to raise ticket prices. Well, UCB has raised prices several times already and certainly will again. Perhaps the bad things aren't so bad after all. Or perhaps they're just smokescreens.
3. It doesn't matter if some people don't want to get paid. I am going to say this again in bold. It doesn't matter if some people don't want to get paid. I am going to say this again in bold and all caps. IT DOESN'T MATTER IF SOME PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO GET PAID.
Too often the pay issue gets framed as a matter of opinion. Someone says "UCB should pay" and someone else says "but I'm fine not getting paid" and a third person says "well we should get to the bottom of this, later, once we deal with all our other, more pressing problems." This reduces the question from "what is right" to "what is popular and logistically convenient." On Saturday Besser said he would be open to various structural changes—for instance, adopting a tiered payment system—if a poll of the community revealed that most people want them. However, he also said, whenever the pay issue comes up he finds that most people he talks to don’t.
This argument drives me crazy because it is actually an argument for pay. When someone tells you they are happy working for free, 99% of the time they are telling you they can afford to work for free. If a majority of your workforce tells you they can afford to work for free, and if your mission is indeed to provide opportunity and access to emerging comedians, you should be terrified. It doesn't matter how good your intentions are. If you are only providing opportunities to people who already have plenty, you are not really providing anything at all.
Several people at the meeting, including Lauren Lapkus and Stephanie Allynne, argued that a tiered payment system would in fact be very bad for talent, because (among other reasons) only a few popular comedians already able to sell out shows would ever benefit. Instead of going to other venues that do pay, Allynne said, those people would stay at UCB and monopolize the premium performance slots. Later, Lapkus said that UCB's model is the model that has always existed and performers know this when they sign up; if they want to get paid they can just go somewhere else.
This, too, seems to me a roundabout way of saying UCB should pay everyone. As a result it will retain high-draw talent and all writers/performers will enjoy the fruits of their labor. But, one more time, it doesn't matter who makes the most compelling argument. This is not an unanswered theoretical quandary. It is a matter of law and the law is not on UCB's side. Questions of implementation like Allynne’s are important, but they should be recognized as what they are: questions of implementation. What comes first is acknowledging the problem and committing to its repair.
4. Late in the meeting Ian Roberts drew what I suppose was an analogy. "If I was telling you I was something equivalent to McDonald's or In-N-Out, and I said let me work differently and not pay my people, then I think you could scoff at me," he said. "Here's what I say is the difference, is that—it costs a lot of money to put up a show and it is a labor of love. It's not—nobody wants to, I don't know, I guess there are a few, but just thinks, God, fucking making hamburgers turns me on, I love this. And I'm not saying if you like your job, you shouldn't get paid, but I'm saying… I've worked for 20 years in this industry. Be careful what you dream for, because once they pay you, you get told what to do about it."
There is much one could say about this. What I will just note is that in every meaningful sense under the law, UCB already tells its talent what to do.
A few minutes later Roberts added:
"Ultimately the real thing is, stage work? You can be a Broadway actor and you cannot‚ cannot, can't—I suppose Anthony Hopkins or you know, if you're a movie star—but a working actor who gets equity pay onstage can't live off this. That's not what's meant to be. I had this discussion with someone in New York—I'm saying, do you want to make your money doing this? It just doesn't happen."
I said last month how dismaying it is that the UCB 4 just don't seem interested in imagining a better comedy industry, especially since imagining a better comedy industry is what led them to start UCB in the first place. And I do think there are meaningful differences of opinion between them: in this meeting alone, Besser said several times that he would be open to all manner of changes, even if they reshape UCB at a fundamental level. Which is frankly a radical departure from his position a few years ago, and one Roberts clearly did not share. Still, I'm pretty sure they all more or less share the view Roberts expressed here, which is that the skill their students pay thousands of dollars to learn is not inherently profitable. This raises a few questions, namely: then why do their classes cost so much? Why are their teachers paid employees and not volunteers? Why is UCB a for-profit company?
The task before the UCB 4 right now is to find a sustainable path forward—one where decisions are made as the result of diligent, transparent processes with the community’s input. I don't know if this is possible so long as they fail to recognize that pay is UCB's original sin. Roberts is right: the performing arts are a volatile industry. But he is wrong to suggest UCB is a victim of that status quo rather than a cause. One significant reason it is difficult to make a living in entertainment is that a whole lot of companies depend on large pools of talent willing to work for free or cheap. It is no coincidence that so many of these businesses have a cavalier view of their workers and a propensity for reckless, often ruinous decision-making. Austerity and economic volatility are not necessary consequences of art, but of capitalism.
Roberts and his peers may still think of themselves as defiers of an unjust system. Unfortunately they have become arbiters of one. This is why simply arguing about pay online and at every all-theatre meeting will never get UCB talent paid. You cannot argue a boss into realizing it's unfair that they're a boss.
(I will also just note that Broadway and off-Broadway gigs may not universally pay well, though many do, but they do pay according to transparent and standardized models, thanks to their trade unions.)
5. This is actually adjacent to everything else. But I just want to share a snippet of an email I've shared on Twitter before. It's from an improviser at Wage House in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Here is what he said:
While they don't currently pay for EVERY show, they are working towards getting there and do make a point to pay when they can. They also teach classes and pay folks pretty generously there as well. in the past, they've also given me small budgets to buy props, scenery, etc. I think I developed more quickly in my 4 years in Rhode Island than I did in 7 in NYC, and while getting paid isn't the ONLY reason, it certainly has played a big part. In fact, it's become enough of a supplemental income for me, that it helped my wife and I buy a house recently. Getting paid really forces me to work harder, to respect the space and audience more and, in general, legitimizes it for me, even though I know I probably won't rise out of tiny black boxes in a tiny state. Another result of getting paid I didn't expect: when you tell people you actually get paid for your work on stage, they tend to take you more seriously and, in turn, are more likely to come out to shows.
I think about this all the time.
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