Last week the folks at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) sent out a letter announcing they were permanently closing their venues for both performances and classes in New York City. (This on top of announcing in March they were laying off all their employees at their theater spaces in NYC and LA, in response to the pandemic.) The letter was signed “Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade.”
I don’t know why, but this news hit me hard. Maybe it was the thought of all those theater people (in one count 160 employees) suddenly without work. Just another reminder of how many theater people are unemployed. (All of them. Well, almost all of them.) Or maybe it was just another reminder of how dire things are in the world of live entertainment.
How can you do a live show, if you can’t safely pack people together in a room to watch it? And even if you could adapt a theater space so everyone was spaced—at a minimum—six feet apart, would audiences show up? And could a theater survive on the meager box office returns?
Groups like UCB (improv-based comedy troupes that also taught improv classes) were always partly insulated from the vagaries of the box office, because so much of their revenue came from their classes, and from the ready-made audience of friends, family, and fellow students those classes generate once you put your students together into teams and have them compete against each other on stage.
The folks at UCB learned how to do this in Chicago, in our (until now) always crowded improv scene. At iO. At the Annoyance. At Second City.
But shelter in place and social distancing kicks that model in the ass. You can take your classes online. And I have heard of two improv-based theaters doing shows with performers who have quarantined together—Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and the Annoyance—but that does not seem like a viable model for all future live shows. And most of the games created by Viola Spolin that birthed modern improvisational theater are intended for intensely social situations where people are on stage, together, interacting at much closer range than six feet. Try playing freeze while also respecting social distancing.
I have to admit, though, that the thing that shocked me the most about UCB was how big they had become in the years since they moved (with almost no fanfare) from Chicago to New York in 1996. I knew they had become a player in the comedy business. And I have gone to shows at UCB in NYC over the years. Still, I was surprised when the news of their closing prompted articles in not just the New York Daily News and New York magazine’s Vulture section but the New York Times, New Yorker, and the Hollywood Reporter.
I should not have been. Over the past two and half decades UCB became a rich source for talent, and many of the top comic actors on TV today have some connection to UCB: Aubrey Plaza, Ilana Glazer, Chris Gethard, Kate McKinnon, and of course Walsh and Poehler.
In a way the UCB had come to resemble the large organizations they used to make fun of when they were a scrappy troupe of unknowns in Chicago in the early 90s. Back then Besser used to describe the Upright Citizens Brigade as a dark corporation that secretly runs everything. "We are the invisible government," he told me once, snickering.
They used to be the bad boys (and for a long time, like all improv in the early 90s, they were male dominated), the guys who sat in the back of the class and needled the teacher. They loved tweaking the noses of authority figures. And I loved them for that.
In 1994's Conference on the Future of Happiness they faked a fight between Besser and an actor pretending to be Richard Christiansen, then the lead critic at the Chicago Tribune. Besser ended up driving the faux Christiansen from the theater shouting "We don't want critics. We don't need your approval!"
UCB founding member Adam McKay once called Besser a "guerrilla ontologist," a term coined by science fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson to describe people who deliberately undermine simpleminded, often manufactured consensus views of reality to reveal seamier, more complex truths. The UCB I covered in the 90s was all about guerrilla ontology.
Their 1992 show Virtual Reality was full of moments where they explored the concepts of reality, which is, as Luigi Pirandello revealed a hundred years ago, a very slippery thing in theater. At one point in the show the actors led the audience out of the theater for a “virtual street demonstration,” a demonstration that actually blocked traffic on North Avenue and resulted in the very real (unplanned) arrest of cast member Horatio Sanz, who stayed in character throughout the arrest. Sanz ended up spending the night in jail; his father picked him up in the morning.
As I write this, I realize these are the kind of minor rebellions you can indulge in when you are young and broke—and struggling to get noticed. But the world is different when you become an institution. It also looks different when the world you have thrived in suddenly stops working—literally and figuratively.
It is easy to call for disruption when you have no stake in the status quo. But what do you do when the disruption comes and you don’t want it because you have something to lose? What do you do when reality itself undermines the consensus reality?
I spoke with Besser last week and he seemed to lament how big and corporate UCB had become. That desire for the founders of UCB to recapture what they had in the past is reflected in the open letter they sent last week; “paring down to the size we were when we started is our best chance for survival.”
Those are the stakes. For UCB. And probably for most people involved in live theater. Which is the final reason UCB’s news hit me hard. If they can’t keep it going, who can? On the other hand, if they do find a way to survive the current crisis, others can as well. UCB has said they will host shows at another venue in New York and rent space for classes once it's safe to do so.
The Hollywood Reporter interview ends on the following hopeful note from Walsh: "We've lost our venues multiple times. We're scrappy. So, god willing, we'll survive this as well. Hang in there with us as we figure this out, please.” v