A New Improv Theater Tries to Be the Anti-U.C.B. Is That a Trap, Too?
When the Upright Citizens Brigade shut down operations in New York for good last year, the news hit Corin Wells like family death. She moved to the city because of UCB, invested time and money, went from student to teacher, and in the uncertain first months of the pandemic, the theater represented an anchor in the past and a hope. for the future. “When I got the email I cried,” she said on a video call. “I had nothing to return to. “
Then a feeling of betrayal set in, shared by many improvisers, especially since UCB had kept its theater in Los Angeles, where its founders are mostly based. “We were the bastard child,” Wells said. “Decisions were made for us that didn’t serve us, almost like taxation without representation.”
In recent years, UCB had moved its popular Del Close Festival from New York to the West Coast, closed its East Village theater and moved out of its longtime space in Chelsea. But for Michael Hartney, UCB New York’s last artistic director, the last straw came when the institution took out a Paycheck Protection Program loan worth hundreds of thousands of dollars before closing its theater. He felt “very played”, triggering a revelation and a call to Wells to offer him to start his own improvisation theater. She immediately agreed. They brought in other UCB veterans to form a board of directors that met remotely every week last summer.
“We wanted to reinvent what improvisational theater looked like,” Wells said.
The challenge: How do you keep the good sides of the Upright Citizens Brigade while avoiding the flaws that made it so susceptible to collapse?
Of all the art forms injured during the pandemic, none have been as disrupted as improvisational comedy. Legacy institutions like Second City and iO in Chicago were sold after economic turmoil and racial reckoning. In New York, the demise of UCB, a longtime juggernaut, left a void that many now compete to fill. It is a time of remarkable flow, turmoil and opportunity. New York-related newcomers like Asylum NYC (currently in UCB’s former home on 26th Street) and the Brooklyn Comedy Collective (which recently moved to a new space in Williamsburg), both offer classes and host shows. And staples like the Pit and the Magnet (both of which were downsized during the pandemic) have started to reopen, producing shows and offering classes, virtually and in person.
And what started with Hartney’s phone call is now the Squirrel Comedy Theater, the name an ironic reference to the term for people who practice Scientology outside of the official organization. Even though the Squirrel was born in part out of disenchantment, he still stands out for his faith in the aesthetic of the Upright Citizens Brigade. “UCB taught us a method of creating comedy that works,” Hartney said. “These other theaters are amazing and precious, but they don’t teach that. We have the impression that it must continue. “
The Squirrel began residency in June at Caveat, a theater on the Lower East Side. Hartney and his board, which includes improvisers Lou Gonzalez, Patrick Keene, Maritza Montañez and Alex Song-Xia, are exploring real estate options.
The board members quickly came to a consensus on principles that would set them in contrast to their old house. Squirrel would be non-profit (which, until recently, was very unusual for improv theaters), pay for on-stage talent (UCB did not) and, in an effort to remove barriers to entry, would open classes to any student, whatever their level. Because it is non-profit, the long-term sustainability of the squirrel may depend not only on ticket sales and course fees, but also on its ability to raise funds.
Its mission statement emphasizes a commitment to diversity, inclusion and representation. UCB also claimed to value inclusion, by instituting a diversity scholarship, but this often did not translate on stage. In June 2020, it came under heavy criticism for its diversity efforts, leading its founders to announce that they were empowering a “board of diverse individuals.”
So how will Squirrel be different?
Hartney and Wells say it starts with leadership. Unlike the founders of UCB – Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh – this board does not include any straight white men or women and is predominantly black, Indigenous, or of color. Hartney described himself as “a de facto art director,” which he said was very hesitant due to the appearance of continuity, but added that because of his experience others insisted. While programming decisions at UCB were made by him alone, it is now the group that decides.
When asked if they would program a troupe like The Stepfathers, a popular and talented company that has worked at UCB for many years with artists like Zach Woods and Chris Gethard, he shakes his head: “ I’m not excited about an all-white weekend team.
The Squirrel on Sunday premiered a weekly show with a diverse cast, Raaaatscraps, hosted by two former stepfathers, Connor Ratliff and Shannon O’Neill, also veterans of the most famous UCB show, Asssscat. Not to mention the old theater, O’Neill took the stage and described the show as a “renamed, renamed” version of Asssscat, and it relied on the same format: a monologue by a surprise guest ( Janeane Garofalo this time) inspires a long form of improvisation.
How the squirrel deals with its relationship with UCB is going to be an evolutionary process which, according to Wells, will depend to some extent on trial and error: “What will sell tickets: an old one UCB team with a recognizable name or a new group of artists who will bring their friends? “It’s a tough balance,” she said, adding that they had to do both. “Always test.”
But a guiding principle is the skepticism of permanence, of shows that go on indefinitely, even of founders who stay too long. “We designed this to be taken over,” said Hartney, who hasn’t seen himself in the job for 10 years. “We want the next few people to respond to the changing needs of this community. “
UCB has built its reputation in part as an incubator for stars like Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, and Donald Glover, and Squirrel wants to be a competitive environment for ambitious comics as well as a warm and welcoming community. Hartney recognizes that there can be tension. Among the board members, “I am probably the most interested in organizing an ‘SNL’ showcase,” he said.
Wells is too. This will surely help the squirrel grab people’s attention in the comedy as last week Wells was named one of the new faces of Just For Laughs, the industry festival. It’s an irony that she doesn’t forget that building a theater in opposition to UCB can tie you to it. “In a perfect world, we could go our separate ways,” she said, but in every conversation they’ve had, UCB “has always been a part. I think in order to be able to fix a system that UCB put in place, you had to somehow live in it.
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