What's Next For UCB?

UCB East will shut its doors for the last time on February 9th. Many of its long-running shows have already given their final performances, victims of the inevitable programming cuts announced alongside the theater’s closure earlier this month. On February 15th, UCB will launch its new partnership with SubCulture, the West Village stage whose calendar currently features a smattering of concerts charging $35-$50 a head. Meanwhile most weekend tickets at UCB East and Hell’s Kitchen have quietly risen from $12 apiece to $14; tickets at the new venue will cost $14 on Fridays and Saturdays, and $7-$9 on Sundays. Starting next month in Los Angeles, UCB Sunset will go dark on Mondays; the Inner Sanctum will go dark Mondays and Fridays, save for a Friday diversity jam and certain events with paid admission, such as lectures and Q+As with famous comedians. UCB will seek to raise money by renting out those spaces and through two other measures described at the all-theatre meeting on January 12th: a new two-dollar-off promotion in which the final show of the night at each theater, if it is not sold out, will offer discounted tickets to audiences of the show preceding it; and Monday happy hour pricing at Birds, a bar adjoining the Franklin theatre, for UCB audiences and performers. Hovering around all these changes are the obvious questions: will they heal the wound or simply stanch the bleeding? What’s next for UCB? 

Adam Conover, creator-star of TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything and a UCB performer for over ten years, sees one clear answer. “The next step is the performers need to organize,” he told me earlier this month. “And I would be the first person to sign up to attend that meeting.”

This is not the first time Conover has advocated for large-scale changes at UCB. In March 2018 he wrote a Facebook post criticizing the theater’s pay model, namely the requirement that its unpaid house team writers and performers pay mandatory coaching fees. And he was one of several people to speak up during the January 12th town hall with objections to the theatre’s leadership. Despite his objections, Conover came out of that meeting optimistic. “I was impressed by the amount of open-mindedness and dialogue on display from both the community and the management of the theater,” he told me afterward, citing in particular UCBTLA artistic director Beth Appel’s even-handed moderation. “These sort of conversations have historically been, in the theater—they have a tendency to be one-sided or closed-off or just simply not productive dialogues.” He recalled a meeting four years ago where Matt Besser told the community, “If anybody here wants to be paid, you can leave right now.” This time around, Besser expressed support for a system where some shows charge higher admission prices and pay their talent accordingly. “Which is a huge, huge change,” Conover said. 

Though he believes it would be “appropriate and ethical” for UCB to adopt some sort of paying model, Conover knows that’s a long way off. What should come first, in his view, are serious changes to the way UCB’s leaders steer the ship. About 40 minutes into the January 12th meeting, someone asked Besser if he sees “a light at the end of this financial tunnel,” per an audio recording. “Yes,” Besser said, “and no one’s more affected by it than Ian and I and Amy and Walsh. Like you, you know, at worst won't have a place to perform. We at worst would go bankrupt and lose our house.” Conover felt this reply embodied a longstanding failure by the UCB 4 to recognize the scope of their community’s investment, and he raised his hand to say as much. “I'm lucky enough, you know, I've made my way in my career, but five years ago, 10 years ago, if the theater had closed while I was working there, I would've not just lost a place to perform, I would've lost a chunk of my career and a place that I would've invested a lot of time and labor into,” he told Besser. “I think I've always seen the performers as stakeholders in the theatre and in the community and in the business of the theatre as well. And I've wanted to see that grow in my time here.” Instead, he observed, the norm remained that talent receives little information about the UCB 4’s decision-making and no say in their decisions.

Besser’s response was contrite and missed the point. “I would say more decisions than not have been based more on what the theatre would want than what you'd call a smart business decision,” he said. He proceeded to explain at some length that even though the UCB 4 did not consult the community on many major moves—opening new theaters, launching a video production initiative, relocating the Del Close Marathon—it nonetheless felt it was acting with the community’s interests in mind. “A business would say this is a bad business decision,” he said in reference to the last five DCMs, which the UCB 4 went forward with even as they consistently lost money. “But us treating you like stakeholders, well, this is our way of rewarding you. Hell’s Kitchen was the same.” He concluded that he would be open to meeting with the community about more “philosophical” issues, like whether to open up Harold Night to other formats and how to ensure newer shows get access to more desirable programming slots. But he saw less room for discussion around more existential questions. “When it's these economic decisions—there was no choice of shutting down UCB East," he said. "There was no consultation to be done. It had to be done.”

“That’s not the kind of stakeholder I was talking about,” Conover told me afterward. “I was talking about meaningful transparency and input in the decision-making process.” It struck him that when UCB announced the move to Hell’s Kitchen last year, the stated reason was UCB Chelsea’s ADA noncompliance; it was only last month that the UCB 4 acknowledged Chelsea had been facing a dire rent increase as well. “It turns out they weren't being transparent about the real reason, which I think is not fair to the performers, who are stakeholders that contributed so much to the theatre,” he said. And as stakeholders, he argues, UCB talent deserve more clarity about the theater’s finances than its owners traditionally provide. "The details of the financial situation are very opaque. Whenever they talk about it, it just sort of throws more glitter into the air.”

One thing is clear amidst the glitter: the UCB 4 have long operated under the assumption that they know what is best for their workforce. The last two months of layoffs and cutbacks have come with an acknowledgment that maybe they don’t. When Conover asked about the status of the recently announced UCBTNY performers’ advocate group, Besser said they’re still waiting for the performers to get it up and running. While there has been no formal announcement about a comparable body in Los Angeles, Conover thinks the community shouldn’t wait for UCB to create it for them. "That group should be formed and led by the performers,” he told me. “And the performers should receive that transparency and decision-making input by demanding it and using their leverage to procure it.”

That movement is already in its nascency in NYC. I have not yet heard of any similar efforts in LA. One hesitancy among the community in both cities is that making any collective demand of UCB would be akin to kicking it while it’s down; and worse, that by demanding more, they may inevitably end up with less. Conover has a different view. “Something I've heard a couple people say was, 'No, now that things are so bad for the theatre financially, this is the wrong time to ask for anything, because nothing's gonna get done,’” he said. “And I actually see the opposite: I think that the more precarious the theatre is, that means the career equity that performers have invested in the theater is most at risk. So this is the moment at which performers, I think, should get together and make sure that their interests are safeguarded and respected by the theatre and school.”

The need to organize may be more urgent than is already apparent. I have heard from two knowledgeable sources inside and outside UCB that the UCB 4 have been looking for someone to buy them out. UCB has not responded to multiple requests for comment, so I will be very clear that this is unconfirmed. But the idea is not so implausible. As we have seen, the UCB 4 have an admitted disinterest in running the place. They have also been sustaining it through these recent hardships with their own money, as Roberts acknowledged last month and Besser reiterated on the 12th. The job is expensive, unprofitable, and causes them endless grief, the avoidance of which seems to be a guiding principle: "We are open to all ideas," Besser said during a discussion about paying talent on the 12th. "The fear would be that we tried, and that's the thing that makes more people pissed than not trying.” Depending on the buyer, an exit would permanently solve their “everyone is always mad at us” problem. It would also be the white whale they apparently have been chasing all these years: a business decision that is both smart and in everyone’s best interests.

If this is true, UCB talent may soon lose the devil they know for a devil they don’t. Given the size and heterogeneity of the workforce, and the relative uniqueness of the business, I struggle to imagine any possible new owner who would come in with an intuitive understanding of their workers’ concerns, let alone one who even recognizes them as workers. After all, UCB’s current owners know the job better than anyone else, and they don’t really know it at all. So both possible roads are really the same road. Sale or no sale, there is only one body meaningfully poised to articulate a new, better vision for the theater’s future. And the future of every theater that follows. 

This post has been updated throughout.


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