Trying to reinvent improv theater

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Trying to reinvent improv theater
Members of Squirrel Comedy Theater perform in New York, Aug. 1, 2021. A diverse board of comics is trying to build an inclusive, accessible institution. But knowing what they don’t want to be may not be enough. Gus Powell/The New York Times.

by Jason Zinoman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When the Upright Citizens Brigade permanently closed its New York operations last year, the news hit Corin Wells like a death in the family. She moved to the city because of UCB and invested time and money, evolving from a student to a teacher. In the uncertain early months of the pandemic, the theater represented an anchor to the past and hope for the future.

“When I got the email, I cried,” she said in a video call. “I didn’t have anything to go back to.”

Then a sense of betrayal sank in, one shared by many improvisers, particularly since UCB had held on to its theater in Los Angeles, where its founders are mostly based.

“We were the bastard child,” Wells said. “Decisions were being made for us that did not 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 exited its longtime space in Chelsea. But for Michael Hartney, the last artistic director of UCB New York, the final straw came when the institution took out a Paycheck Protection Program loan worth hundreds of thousands of dollars before closing his theater.

He said he felt “very gamed,” sparking an epiphany and a call to Wells to propose starting their own improv theater. She immediately agreed. They brought other UCB veterans to form a board that met remotely every week last summer.

“We wanted to reinvent what the improv theater looked like,” Wells said.

The challenge: How do you hold on to the good parts of the Upright Citizens Brigade but avoid the flaws that made it so susceptible to collapse?

Of all the art forms hurt during the pandemic, none was disrupted as much as improv comedy. Legacy institutions like Second City and iO in Chicago were sold after economic turmoil and a racial reckoning. In New York City, the vanishing of UCB, a longtime juggernaut, left a vacuum that many are now competing to fill.

It’s a moment of remarkable flux, turmoil and opportunity. Relative newcomers to New York like Asylum NYC and the Brooklyn Comedy Collective are offering classes and putting on shows. And staples like the Pit and Magnet (which both scaled down in the pandemic) have started to reopen, producing shows and offering classes virtually and in person.

And what began with Hartney’s phone call is now the Squirrel Comedy Theatre, the name a wry reference to the term for people who practice Scientology outside the official organization. Even though the Squirrel was born in part from disenchantment, it still distinguishes itself by its faith in the aesthetic of the Upright Citizens Brigade.

“The UCB taught us a method of creating comedy that works,” Hartney said. “Those other theaters are amazing and valuable, but they don’t teach that. We feel like it has to keep going.”

The Squirrel started as a residency in June at the Caveat, a theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Hartney and his board, which includes improvisers Lou Gonzalez, Patrick Keene, Maritza Montañez and Alex Song-Xia, are looking at real estate options.

The board members quickly came to a consensus on principles that would put them in contrast with their former home. Squirrel would be nonprofit (which until recently was very unusual for improv theaters), pay onstage talent (UCB did not), and, in an effort to remove barriers of entry, open classes to any student, regardless of level. Because it’s nonprofit, the Squirrel’s long-term sustainability may depend not just on ticket sales and class fees but on its ability to raise money, too.

Its mission statement emphasizes a commitment to diversity, inclusion and representation. UCB also claimed to value inclusion, instituting a diversity scholarship, but that often didn’t translate to the stage. In June 2020, it came under considerable criticism for its diversity efforts, leading its founders to announce that they were giving power to a “board of diverse individuals.”

So how will Squirrel be different?

Hartney and Wells say it starts with leadership. In contrast to the UCB’s founders — Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh — this board includes no straight white men or women; members are majority Black, Indigenous or people of color. Hartney described himself as “a de facto artistic director,” which he said he was hesitant about because of the appearance of continuity, but added that because of his experience, others insisted. Whereas programming decisions at UCB were made by him alone, now the group decides.

When asked if they would program a troupe like the Stepfathers, a popular, talent-rich company that ran at UCB for many years with performers like Zach Woods and Chris Gethard, he shakes his head: “I’m not excited about an all-white weekend team.”

On Sunday, the Squirrel did premiere a weekly show with a diverse cast, Raaaatscraps, that was hosted by two former members of the Stepfathers, Connor Ratliff and Shannon O’Neill, also veterans of the most famous UCB show, Asssscat. Without mentioning the old theater, O’Neill went onstage and described the show as a “renamed, rebranded” version of Asssscat, and it relied on the same format: A monologue by a surprise guest (Janeane Garofalo this time) inspires a long-form improv.

How the Squirrel navigates its relationship to the UCB is going to be an evolving process that Wells said will depend to some degree on trial and error: “What’s going to sell tickets: an old UCB team with a recognizable name or a new group of artists who will bring their friends? It’s a hard balance,” she said, adding that they need to do both. “Always be testing.”

But one guiding principal is a skepticism of permanence, of shows that run indefinitely, even of founders who stay too long.

“We designed this to be taken over,” said Hartney, who doesn’t see himself at this job in 10 years. “We want the next people to address the changing needs of this community.”

UCB built its reputation in part as an incubator of stars like Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer and Donald Glover, and the Squirrel wants to be a competitive environment for ambitious comics as well as a warm, welcoming community. Hartney recognizes that there can be a tension. Of the board members, “I am probably the one most interested in hosting an ‘SNL’ showcase,” he said.

Wells is, too. It will surely help the Squirrel get attention from people in comedy that last week, Wells was named one of the new faces at Just For Laughs, the industry festival. It’s an irony not lost on her that building a theater in opposition to UCB can tie you to it.

“In a perfect world, we could separate ourselves,” she said, but in every conversation they’ve had, UCB “has always been a part. I think to be able to fix a system that UCB set in place, you kind of had to live in it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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