A recent New York Times article about a world-famous improv comedy theater’s unusual business model has sparked a passionate debate right here in the Twin Cities. The article focuses on how the Upright Citizen Brigade Theater (UCB), whose alumni include numerous “Saturday Night Live” and sitcom stars, does not pay its casts or performers.
The question of how to fairly compensate artists for their time and work may be as old as the earliest cave paintings, but it’s something new for many in the unscripted theater industry. Since the story’s publication, Minnesota’s own improv theater community has enjoined numerous arguments about whether UCB should be financially compensating performers.
A surprising number of voices nationally have risen to UCB’s defense. They note that the New York theater’s business model compensates improvisers with stage time and the opportunity to practice their craft in front of live audiences. Additionally, the theater is taking on the financial risks involved with owning and managing a space, a significant undertaking, particularly in New York City. And perhaps most significantly, UCB has often served as a launching platform to well-paying gigs for many performers over the years.
A disheartening message
Yet UCB and its supporters fail to address the much larger issue as to what their business model communicates to audiences. For those of us who believe improv is a challenging artistic form that offers audiences something uniquely entertaining, their message is simple and demoralizing: There’s no real worth to what these jokesters do on stage. Any one performer is as good as any other, because they’re all just getting up there and doing something that anyone could do.
In the New York Times article, Matt Besser, a co-founder of UCB, responded to the criticism of not paying performers in language disturbingly close to that hyperbole, “I don’t see what (performers) do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job.”
This dangerous and destructive sentiment could easily be extended to any artistic pursuit. Would we tell a writer, a photographer, or concert pianist that because they enjoy their craft they don’t deserve to make a living at it? By doing so, we would condemn all those endeavors to being nothing more than hobbies. We would preclude any but the financially self-sufficient (read: rich) to spend the time and energy necessary to develop the skills to get better at their chosen craft.
Undermining fellow artists
By publicly making the case that their performers don’t deserve financial compensation, the producers at UCB are undermining their fellow artists and the craft itself. If we in the artistic community aren’t willing to place value in our peers’ work, why should our audiences?
It would be easy to shrug off the story of UCB as an instance in which a particular theater has an odd business plan on which reasonable minds can disagree. Unfortunately, it’s a perspective shared by many in the business. As this debate has played out across the industry, numerous voices in the blogosphere have diminished or even belittled the case for paying improvisers.
This is bad news if we want unscripted theater to mature and grow as an art form. We can’t start making the case to the general public that what improvisers do is worth the price of admission if we can’t even settle it amongst ourselves.
Twin Cities does better
Luckily, in the Twin Cities we can take heart in the fact that many of our improvisational theaters do compensate performers. Longstanding companies like Brave New Workshop and Comedy Sportz have models that compensate their casts. And HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis just recently unveiled its plan to pay improvisers.
I’m proud that the Twin Cities theater community is leading on this front. Theaters here are providing opportunities for improvisers to grow while defending the value of performers’ work. If people in the wider improv theater community believe in what we do as artists and want audiences to as well, they should start by following Minnesota’s lead.
Tane Danger is a co-founder of Danger Boat Productions and the weekly issue-inspired improv comedy show The Theater of Public Policy, both of which pay their improvisers.
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