When the Honest Citizens Brigade Permanently closed Last year at his New York operation, the news struck Corinne Wells like a death in the family. She moved to the city because of UCB, investing time and money, growing from a student to a teacher and, in the uncertain early months of the pandemic, the theater represented an anchor for the past and hope for the future. “When I got the email, I cried,” she said in a video call. “I had nothing to go back to.”
Then a sense of betrayal sank, which was shared by many reformers, especially since UCB took over its theater in Los Angeles, where its founders are mostly based. “We were bastard kids,” Wells said. “Decisions were being made for us that didn’t serve us, almost like taxation without representation.”
In recent years, UCB has moved its popular Del Close Festival from New York to the West Coast, closed its East Village theater and moved out of its longtime location in Chelsea. But for Michael Hartney, the eventual artistic director of UCB New York, the final straw came when the institution previously took hundreds of thousands of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program loan closing its theatre. He felt that “very funny,” an epiphany and called for Wells to start his own improvisational theatre. She immediately agreed. They brought in other UCB veterans to form a board that met remotely every week last summer.
“We wanted to recreate what the improv theater looked like,” Wells said.
The Challenge: How do you capture the good parts of the Honest Citizens Brigade, but avoid the flaws that have made it susceptible to collapse?
Of all the art forms that have been hurt during the pandemic, none has been disrupted as much as improvisational comedy. Heritage institutions such as the Second City and IO in Chicago were sold after economic turmoil and racial reckoning. In New York, the disappearance of UCB, a longtime juggernaut, left a void that many are now competing to fill. This is a moment of remarkable flux, upheaval and opportunity. New York Relatives Prefer Newcomers Asylum NYC (currently in UCB’s old 26th Street home) and Brooklyn Comedy Collective (who recently moved to a new location in Williamsburg), both offering classes and putting on shows. And staples like Pitt and Magnet (both of which have been decimated in the pandemic) have begun to reopen, producing shows and offering classes, virtually and in person.
And what started with Hartney’s phone call is now Squirrel Comedy Theater, the name of the term is a reference to people practicing Scientology outside the official organization. Even though Squirrel was born out of disillusionment, it distinguishes itself from its belief in the beauty of the Honest Citizens Brigade. “UCB taught us a way to make comedy that works,” Hartney said. “Those other theaters are wonderful and valuable, but they don’t teach that. We think it should keep going.”
Squirrel began as a residency in June at Cavite, a theater on the Lower East Side. Hartney and his board, which includes improvisers Lou Gonzalez, Patrick Keene, Maritza Montenez and Alex Song-Xia, are considering real-estate options.
Board members quickly came to a consensus on principles that would place them in contrast to their former home. Squirrel would be non-profit (which until recently was very unusual for improv theater), paid talent on stage (UCB did not), and classes open to any student, in an effort to remove barriers to entry. , regardless of level. Because it is a non-profit, Squirrel’s long-term sustainability depends not only on ticket sales and class fees, but also on its ability to raise funds.
Its mission statement emphasizes a commitment to diversity, inclusion and representation. UCB also claimed to value inclusion when establishing diversity scholarships, but this often did not translate to the platform. In June 2020, it was heavily criticized for its diversity efforts, Leading to announce its founders They were giving power to the “Board of Miscellaneous Persons”.
So how will the squirrel be different?
Hartney & Wells says it starts with leadership. Unlike the founders of UCB – Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh – this board includes no straight white men or women and the majority are black, indigenous or people of color. Hartney described himself as “a genuine artistic director”, whom he said was hesitant because of the presence of continuity, but he said that because of his experience, others insisted. Whereas programming decisions used to be made alone at UCB, now the group makes the decisions.
Asked if he would perform a troupe like a popular stepfather, Talented Running a company for several years at UCB with artists like Zack Woods and Chris Gethard, he shakes his head: “I’m not excited about an all-white weekend team.”
On Sunday, Squirrel premiered a weekly show with a variety cast, Ratscrapes, hosted by two former members of the Stepfather, Conor Ratliff and Shannon O’Neill, who were also veterans of the most famous UCB show, Assassin. . Without mentioning the old theatre, O’Neill went on stage and described the show as a “changed, rebranded” version of the Assassin, and it relied on the same format: a monologue by a surprise guest (this time by Jeanne). Garofalo) inspires a long-form improv.
How Squirrel navigates its relationship with UCB is going to be an evolving process that Wells said will depend in part on trial and error: “What’s a ticket seller: one with a recognizable name.” Who will bring their friends to the old UCB team or a new group of artists? “It’s a tough balance,” she said, adding that they need to do both. “Always test.”
But a guiding principle is a doubt of permanence, shows that go on indefinitely, even for founders who stay on too long. “We designed this to take,” said Hartney, who doesn’t see himself in this job in 10 years. “We want the next ones to meet the changing needs of this community.”
UCB built its reputation as an incubator of stars like Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, and Donald Glover, and Squirrel wants to be a competitive environment for aspiring comics as well as a warm, welcoming community. Hartney recognized that there could be tension. Of the board members, “I’m probably most interested in hosting the ‘SNL’ showcase,” he said.
There is also Wales. It sure would help Squirrel get the attention of people in the comedy that last week, Wells was named one of them. Just for Laughs. new faces inIndustry festival. It is no irony that making theater against UCB can keep you hooked. “In an ideal world, we could isolate ourselves,” she said, but in every conversation of theirs, UCB “has always been a part. I think that to be able to fix a system set up by UCB, You have to be in it.”