The foursome behind the Upright Citizens Brigade say they’re not leaving New York — but they also can’t keep paying rent during a pandemic.
With live entertainment and all kinds of gatherings on hold for the foreseeable future, the theater community has been hit particularly hard — including Upright Citizens Brigade, the group of improv performance spaces and training centers started by the comedy troupe of the same name.
On March 17, UCB leadership announced mass layoffs at both its New York and Los Angeles facilities — making it among the first entertainment organizations to do so in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, on April 21, co-founders Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh informed members of the community that both physical New York outposts (the UCB theater in Hell’s Kitchen and the Garment District’s UCB Training Center) were closing permanently. “Given the indefinite shutdown of all theaters and schools in both Los Angeles and New York City and the anticipated slow and uncertain return to normal when restrictions are lifted, we cannot afford to continue on in our New York City leases,” read a Monday email signed by the foursome. “Terminating the New York leases is not a cure-all for the financial health of the organization, but one of many changes we will need to make as we restructure our organization moving forward.”
In the wake of their decision, Besser, Poehler, Roberts and Walsh spoke with THR about the struggle to future-proof their comedy institution — including plans to retain a physical presence in New York when the dust settles, offering online classes, lessons learned from the criticism they received over the layoffs announcement coming via email and trying to stay scrappy in an unforgiving economy.
What do you want to stress to the UCB community amid the closures and layoffs?
Amy Poehler: Like most people, we’ve been trying to catch up to all of the changes that are happening so fast. We’re not leaving New York. It’s really important for us to stress that we’re going to continue to provide performance spaces. We’re going to continue to provide classes.
Matt Besser: It’s so scary for the theater community in general about when things are going to open and how things are going to work when they do. What we know for sure is that when things do reopen, we want to be a part of it. If there’s a way to open in some small way, we’re going to open in some small way. We love SubCulture, the other venue we’ve been at, and we’re talking with the owner about how to move forward. We’ll grow as the the rest of the world grows, we hope.
Poehler: What’s so strange about this time is that we normally use the theaters to congregate when it gets tough. Whether you’re in improv, on Broadway or at a comedy club, to not be able to provide people a place to get together is so strange. We’ve been in New York for so many years. We are going to keep performing here and teaching classes here in the hopes that we can come out on the other side of this.
In your email, you wrote about other changes. Are those changes you know about, or ones you’re expecting down the road?
Besser: When you don’t have your own space, you have to completely remodel. Every school scenario is confusing right now, even public schools, so it’s hard for us to commit to any plan until we see what the world is going to be like.
Poehler: Every move is to make sure UCB survives and hopefully, in the future, thrives. We’re not ruling anything out. But, really, the short-term goal is to be transparent and communicative with our community — because our community is what makes the theater. The people at UCB, we’ve known some of them for 20 to 25 years. Everyone from the them, to the person taking their very first improv class, we want to take care of them. We’re really trying to keep it alive, because it means a lot to so many people and we want them to know it means a lot to us.
Why aren’t you taking the same measures in Los Angeles?
Besser: It’s easier because we’re owners of the building on Sunset. It’s not like being in leases in New York.
Ian Roberts: And the other theater that we rent in Los Angeles, the rent is much more manageable. New York rents were killing us already. Rent is less [in Los Angeles], so it’s not as hard to stay open.
UBC, like many comedy institutions, had scrappy beginnings. It is it even possible to be scrappy with rents so high in major cities now?
Poehler: For people who’ve never been to a UCB theater, we were always proud of how low our ticket prices were. We always wanted to get as many people in as possible. A lot has changed over the last 20 years. In television, in comedy, in film, in live entertainment. It’s going to be interesting to see what it’s all going to look like on the other side of it, but we don’t have hindsight yet. We’re part of a much bigger community right now that’s in the unique position of having a business that’s based on bringing people together physically.
You addressed the criticism you received for the way the layoffs were announced in a previous letter to the UCB community, but would you care to talk more about that? What did you learn?
Poehler: Look, we heard the community when they said, “We’re scared, too, and we want better communication.” What’s most important is people know how much we care about this theater, to keep it alive. That getting lost in translation is something we’re trying to fix — and it’s one of the things we can control. We can’t control many things, but we can control being transparent. We’ve watched so many different business try to figure out how to navigate this, and we’re trying our best to be human. This [second] letter is an attempt to do that. UCB, at the end of the day, is a human organization made up of people. I think we did make mistakes, and we’re trying to do better.
Matt Walsh: Communication is the simple answer. We have to do better. We’ve never been not conscious of how much people care about USB. It’s a terribly panic-ridden time for all of us, and we have to be able to navigate moving forward with communication and survival as our main priorities. Like Amy said, we did make mistakes. But the goal is to keep communication going out as much as we can.
Do you anticipate more frequent communication?
Poehler: The problem is that there isn’t much happening that we have any control over. We don’t know what the updates are going to be. This letter is the update we have, and we’re hoping for forgiveness. Everybody, every day, it’s like, “What is next month?”
There was a report we won’t have concerts again until 2021.
Roberts: And it was the fall of 2021!
Besser: The shutdown is scary for everyone. But we shut down our schools and theaters before we were told to. It’s like putting it in the hands of amateurs. We’re all amateurs out here when it comes to virus control. We’ve had great leadership from governors in New York and California, but all of these these theaters were making these decisions before the president even made any.
Well, most people seemed to react to this before before him.
Besser: There needs to be more of a plan from above to reopen, so the decision isn’t in the hands of the individuals. It’s too scary that way.
Walsh: Donald Trump is doing a great job. (Laughs.)
Poehler: I always say this: I think he’s sexy, and he has good ideas. (Laughs.)
Do you have a message to the comedy community at large?
Walsh: Comedy will survive, because it’s necessary. Right now Zoom isn’t doing it. But I think it will survive, and something is going to evolve and it will change.
Besser: I like the spirit of what people are doing on Zoom, how improv teams have jumped on there and done their thing.
I teared up a little watching the SNL at Home opening titles.
Poehler: I kind of loved it, too! My first show on SNL was Sept. 29, 2001. There’s something about comedy coming back in any form. Forget whether or not you like it. When institutions come back in scary times, there’s a calming effect. Comedy does that. It’s a touchstone that makes us feel like we’re normal again.
Any final thoughts?
Besser: To our community, we care about you. We’re listening. We’re doing our best to keep UCB alive and make it even better than before. And thank you for being part something that means so much to us and hopefully means so much to you.
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.