UCB Makes Cutbacks To LA Theaters Amid Financial Struggles

File: The UCB Sunset theater. (Liezl Estipona)

The Upright Citizens Brigade theater has been a major influence in modern comedy and entertainment for decades, founded by comedians Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. Now it faces cutbacks as they try to get their financial house in order.

UCB recently held two meetings in L.A., one with UCB teachers and another, larger meeting including the performers, led by Besser and UCB L.A. artistic director Beth Appel.

Based on interviews with two people who attended those meetings, UCB is beginning to pull back after expanding with new theaters amid a comedy boom — it follows the closure last year of long-running L.A. improv theater iO West. The two attendees who spoke with LAist declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the meetings publicly. UCB and Appel did not respond to requests for comment.

The closure of one of UCB's two East Coast theaters was already announced, and at these meetings, they announced a cutback in the number of shows in Los Angeles and a significant reduction in the size of UCB's flagship improv festival. They also recently hired a new chief financial officer to help put the theater on a course toward improving its finances.

As a private company, UCB's finances are not publicly available. UCB's founders have previously described the theater side of their business, as well as their digital side, as not being profitable. The classes make money, but the owners say they don't take any profits, funneling money back into the theater.

Opinions from those who attended the meeting and others responding to news from the meeting were split on whether the changes mean the theater is turning around financially.

REDUCING THE NUMBER OF SHOWS PER NIGHT

UCB has two theaters in L.A., with the newer UCB Sunset location hosting both a main stage and a secondary performance space. It was announced at the meeting that the two UCB Sunset spaces will no longer have shows every night, going dark a couple nights a week to cut costs — the theater plans to rent out those spaces to help their finances.

Some of the major financial issues with the theater in L.A. included difficulty renting out several storefronts at their UCB Sunset location, as well as delays in getting a license to sell beer.

"We experienced an improv comedy boom that I think is maybe coming to an end now," comedian Jack Allison said. He has been on UCB improv and sketch comedy teams, started taking classes in the early days of the theater, and he's worked for Funny or Die and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

UCB recently hired a new chief financial officer to help the theater adjust its costs. She has previously helped other art schools that have had problems. Her recommendations included shutting down one of UCB's two New York theaters, the UCB East, along with other cost-cutting measures. They had in recent years opened new theaters, including UCB Sunset, as well as invested in creating a digital outlet for UCB content.

A teacher who attended both meetings said the theater had grown too big and is now contracting, trying to cut costs and go back to what it's good at: teaching classes and putting up shows. The teacher added, however, that the UCB Sunset cutbacks didn't appear to be permanent, necessarily, and could possibly be reversed once business picks back up again.

Another reason that may have contributed to UCB Sunset going dark on Monday nights is the ongoing concern over three L.A. stages cannibalizing their own audiences. One of UCB's signature shows is Harold Night on Mondays at their other L.A. theater, UCB Franklin. Between their various stages, UCB often runs around nine shows a night in L.A., and that competition may have contributed to difficulties drawing audiences, the teacher who spoke with LAist said — particularly for other Monday shows.

IMPROV FESTIVAL CUTBACKS

A performancing during the 2009 Del Close Marathon. (Alex Erde via Flickr Creative Commons)

The cutbacks include changes to UCB's annual Del Close Marathon improv festival, aka DCM. UCB announced last year that after 20 years in New York, it was moving to L.A., but the experience won't offer the same opportunity to see a wide range of comedy for L.A. fans that it was in New York.

At the all-theater meeting, it was announced that they would be cutting off entries from improv teams that aren't either already official UCB theater house teams in L.A. or teams from UCB in New York willing to fly themselves out for the festival, so there's going to be a lot less improv to see in the new L.A. version of DCM. The staff who previously reviewed submissions from outside improv teams has been laid off, and the theater will no longer be paying to fly out performers for shows.

The seeds of the cutbacks were already in the announcement, with a press release noting that factors for the move included the rising costs of doing business in New York City. The slimmed-down festival is planned to be run on UCB's own L.A. stages, a departure from the way it was run in New York, where the festival took over other venues and had its own party space. All of this could add up to significant savings, but some observers see it as a blow to the wider improv community.

"I don't know to what extent UCB wants or thinks of it this way, but it's a huge annual event for the improv community around the world," said self-described advocacy journalist Seth Simons, who previously reported details from UCB's all-theater meeting. Simons has been a crusader for pay for UCB performers, arguing that UCB's business model is unethical.

Simons said the festival had previously offered improv performers from around the country a chance to make connections, but that they won't be getting that opportunity this year without being able to submit to the significantly scaled back event.

ARGUMENTS OVER WHO SHOULD BE PAID

While not the meetings' focus, the all-theater meeting was used by some attendees to raise longstanding concerns about pay. UCB performers aren't paid for their performances on UCB stages, and members of the theater's official house teams in particular incur expenses, including paying for UCB classes and hiring coaches for their teams.

The theater said last year that they would begin to pay for coaches for official theater teams, but it has since rescinded that offer due to the theater's finances. However, a UCB teacher LAist spoke with said that they believed the theater wants to pay coaches and will do so once its financial situation improves.

After a long back-and-forth at the meeting, UCB co-founder Ian Roberts said that teams wouldn't need to hire coaches anymore if they didn't want to, according to the teacher. However, Roberts wasn't at the meeting in an official capacity and noted that that idea could come off as disingenuous, as coaches are seen as an important part of performers getting better. UCB co-founder Matt Besser responded that the idea of not paying coaches is something that could be explored.

A UCB teacher told LAist that deciding not to use a coach would be "suicide" for a team, adding that teams they've worked with who hadn't been using coaches aren't good.

The idea of paying performers was raised at the meeting by multiple attendees, including a former UCB artistic director, sources told LAist. Some longtime UCB performers also argued against it, saying that they can make money when they perform at other theaters, while UCB's stages act as a training ground.

The theater's official teams are also used to help promote what's taught in UCB improv and sketch comedy, which the theater has traditionally made money on, offsetting the costs of the theater.

"I ultimately think that people should be paid to perform at UCB, but I think at the very least, people shouldn't pay to perform," Allison said, "and they certainly shouldn't pay to perform in a house style to serve as an example for people who are paying for classes."

Allison and others have argued that the high cost of learning to do comedy at a theater like UCB has impacted the demographics of who's actually doing comedy. Simons agrees.

"They don't pay their workers, which I consider unethical in and of itself, but it's also hugely detrimental to the comedy system overall," Simons said. "If only people who can afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to perform at UCB get to perform at UCB, that quickly becomes a very limited set of perspectives on stage, and a very limited set of opportunities. And that trickles upward into the rest of the industry — but UCB, as it often says proudly, is an important stepping stone for young comedians."

Allison agrees that UCB can be a useful resource for aspiring comedians, but argued that the theater has devoted resources to projects without asking their larger community beforehand.

"I cannot deny — look, there are absolute positives that can come out of UCB. I met a lot of people that I still enjoy working with, and I got work out of UCB," Allison said. "What I would like to see out of UCB is an actual real effort to involve the community in the decision-making process."

But he added that, as someone who's experienced some success from his time at UCB, he feels that it's now his responsibility to help things improve for others. Meanwhile, the UCB showrunner we spoke with said that they felt that the issue of paying performers is a long way down the line — and that whether UCB's theaters will still be in business in a year or two appears to be in question.

Disclosure: Mike Roe has taken classes and performed at UCB theaters in the past, as well as other L.A. comedy theaters.