This Is Big, Maybe

On improv's long-overdue reckoning.

This Is Big, Maybe

The UCB 4 have been seeking nonprofit status for the theater since February, they said in a letter yesterday. Once they receive it, they will relinquish control “to a diverse board” tasked with addressing systemic racism and inequality in the company. They also said they will also hand off day-to-day operations of the training center in August, though they did not clarify whether they will give up ownership as well as operational control, nor whether the training center will remain for-profit.

According to four former UCB employees, it will. The company’s leadership announced internally this past winter that UCB was planning to convert the theater into a nonprofit, these sources told me. The training center, meanwhile, would remain a for-profit company under the UCB 4’s ownership. Two of these sources recall initial discussions of the plan in December 2019, with a broader announcement from management in early 2020.

The theaters “would have to totally rebrand and get a new board and donors,” one of these sources said, adding that the plan was "to rename the theaters to show there wasn’t any reciprocity between the two.” Employees were cautiously optimistic about the idea, this person said, which they felt would give them more say over the organization. These sources do not know whether UCB’s plans have changed since they left the company.

These are no small points. The UCB Training Center and UCB Theater are separate entities, though the former has historically served as a funnel to the latter. The training center has generally been the more profitable entity, by which I mean the profitable entity, enough to subsidize the loss-leading theater when necessary. If the UCB 4 plan to retain ownership of UCB’s profit-making arm while giving up the money pit, well, that would raise questions about longstanding claims that they’re not in it for the money. Also, UCB’s CFO told me in March that the owners are not involved in the company’s day-to-day operations, so I’m curious what exactly they’ll be giving up come August.

I reached out to owner Matt Besser and CFO Daryl La Fountain yesterday for clarification. I will update this post if I receive any. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the bigger picture.

Yesterday’s announcement came ten days after UCBNY’s former Diversity Coordinator, Keisha Zollar, revealed on Twitter that she was not paid for her work at the theater:

This thread set off a round of heated condemnation of UCB, which has received criticism from its BIPOC workers for years. The “call for change,” as the UCB 4 describe it in their letter, is by no means a new one. What is new is the collectivized nature of the call across all of improv, and the social context that makes it untenable to ignore.

Zooming out, the UCB 4 are actually pretty late to the game. Last week comedian Dewayne Perkins responded to Second City’s Black Lives Matter tweet with a viral thread about racism he and other Black performers faced at the theater. Second City’s CEO and Executive Producer, Andrew Alexander, resigned a day later, announcing he would divest from the company. A group of Black Second City alumni and employees responded with a letter demanding specific actions from the company—

—in which they were joined by members of the theater’s Latinx and Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and Desi American communities:

D’Arcy Stuart and Steve Johnston, Second City’s Chairman and its President, agreed to the demands in an open letter posted Thursday, writing that "We are prepared to tear it all down and begin again."

Another Chicago improv theater, iO, faces a similar reckoning. On Tuesday a group of performers posted a petition demanding, among other things, that owner Charna Halpern apologize for the theatre’s institutionalized racism and her own history of racism, and that she cede her centralized power to a governing body of paid employees. Halpern responded the next day, writing that she was “happily committed to working toward” the petition’s demands. She asked for patience, however, as she worked to stabilize the theater’s finances.

That’s a crucial bit of context. These conciliatory responses, from institutions that have exploited and ignored their BIPOC workers for years, do not come only against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. They also come during a pandemic that has left the institutions in financial crisis. None of them are open right now. If they’re making money, it’s from online classes, and it’s surely not enough to pay their rent and mortgage and property tax bills. There is a very real possibility that none of these theaters will make it to the other side, which means they may never be in a position to implement the systemic changes they are now promising. Or, if they do make it that far, their leaders may simply leave their BIPOC successors in command of—and liable for—a sinking ship. All in the name of progress.

So there’s ample reason to be skeptical of these promises. And there are plenty of questions left unanswered, especially with respect to UCB: is the plan still for the training center to remain for-profit? If so, why? Why does UCB not establish a paid committee to start reviewing its policies now? Will the "independent person" appointed to address complaints about "race, sexual orientation, and safety" be any different than the third-party firm to which UCB has already shopped out the investigation of sexual misconduct complaints? Will the UCB 4 donate to the nonprofit once it’s established (and regularly thereafter), or leave their successors with empty pockets? Will they acknowledge and apologize for the relation between UCB’s illegal free labor policy and its longstanding inequalities? Have they paid Keisha Zollar?

But there’s also reason to be optimistic. It turns out that when creative communities join together to demand accountability from their institutions, they get results. That’s an immensely powerful tool moving forward. The bell cannot be un-rung.

Anyway. I will have more on these stories soon. I just wanted to give a brief sense of the sea change happening in improv right now. It’s big. And it’s just getting started.

What issues is your comedy community dealing with right now? Please give me an email or DM if there’s anything you think I should be covering.