How did the comedy juggernaut Upright Citizens Brigade Theater solve the most intractable problem of live theater today, the inexorable rise of ticket prices?
Simple: don’t pay performers for work onstage.
This unusual business model has helped make the theater one of New York’s premier comedy stages and incubators of talent, showcasing Amy Poehler of “Parks and Recreation” and grooming rising stars like Ellie Kemper from “The Office” and the “Saturday Night Live” cast members Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon.
With the kind of young audience that theater producers have long courted and a bustling school (costing about $400 a class), the Upright Citizens Brigade — which has three sites on two coasts and has inspired competitors like the PIT and the Magnet, creating a new theater sphere in New York — is one of the great success stories of the new comedy boom. But as the theater expands, not paying performers raises questions about not just labor standards but also about diversity and what comedy will look like in popular culture.
Nick Turner, a stand-up performer who quit hosting a popular Upright Citizens’ show over the issue of free work, said that while many improv artists surely benefited from the exposure, others were afraid to speak up.
“I got two messages from improvisers who say they support me, want to get paid, but can’t say it in public,” he said. “The reason is there’s only one theater in town. Sure, there’s the PIT and Magnet, but they’re full of people who want to go to U.C.B. because that’s where you get seen.”
Ever since a strike at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, stand-up comics have usually received fees from clubs. By contrast, improv artists have occasionally been paid, at bigger theaters like the storied Second City in Chicago, but it’s less common. (The founder of the PIT, Ali Reza Farahnakian, says payment at his theater is on a “case-by-case basis.” )
These two artistic traditions were largely separate when the Upright Citizens Brigade, which opened its first permanent space in 1999 in Chelsea, pioneered the concept of putting them under the same roof. Its second space, U.C.B. East, opened in the East Village in 2011 with a greater focus on stand-up than the original theater has. Mixing the formats has arguably benefited the comedy scene, but it has also sowed the seeds of the current discord.
The business model of Upright Citizens — a for-profit theater — came under scrutiny in December, when a comedian, Kurt Metzger, criticized on an Upright Citizens’ stage the policy of not paying stand-ups, a complaint taken up by fellow comics on social media. But improv artists forcefully defended the theater, saying its ticket prices ($5 to $10) created opportunities for exposure to a comedy-savvy audience and industry, which could lead to future fame.
“I owe everything to U.C.B.,” said Chris Gethard, a member of the Stepfathers improv team (which includes Zach Woods, an “Office” alumnus) and a popular comedian in his own right, with a television deal with IFC. “It got me a smart audience of comedy nerds that you want. It kept letting me fail at a diversity of things and try again. I don’t know another theater that would do that.”
What’s become clear is that for the Upright Citizens Brigade, requiring performers to work free — and they can do so for years — is not a necessity but rather a fundamental part of the organization’s philosophy. As it has grown, the theater has chosen to keep ticket prices low and has put money into renting real estate (its East Village space led to $1 million in debt) and not to paying for onstage talent. If you listen to its leadership, you get the impression that the question of whether the theater has enough money to pay is irrelevant.
“There’s a creative vibe at U.C.B., and to maintain it, we can’t pay people,” Mr. Besser said in an interview. “If you pay, then you have to assign worth to shows, and then people will resent that.”
Like the rest of the founders, he doesn’t take a salary; teachers in the school are paid.
Upright Citizens Brigade did recently respond to the criticism by making several small changes to policy, like adding stand-ups to its small touring business (which does pay), promising to hold industry showcases for stand-ups and giving performers two free drinks a show.
Mr. Turner, the stand-up who quit, isn’t impressed. “A beer to a bar costs $1,” he said in an interview. So “we are getting $2.”
This controversy is just as much about growing pains when a scrappy theater matures into an institution. But when a prominent, popular theater keeps prices low by not paying performers, competitive pressure is put on the entire scene.
“Once a big part of an industry becomes unpaid, that quickly becomes the norm,” said Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation,” which tracks how the explosion of internships in creative fields changed the entry level of many industries.
In recent years this led to several class-action lawsuits under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Upright Citizens Brigade would be exempt if its performers were classified as independent contractors, but Elizabeth Wagoner, one of the lawyers who in December won a settlement with “The Charlie Rose Show” over unpaid labor, said a case could be made that they are employees.
“It reminds me of a performer-employer relationship with strip clubs that is now hotly litigated,” she said. “When a business relies on free labor but also controls how that labor is performed, it starts to raise concerns.”
Mr. Besser responded: “I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job.”
Some defenders of Upright Citizens note that payment like the kind stand-up comics earn would only be a symbolic gesture, since it would not add up to a living. It’s true that stand-ups make modest fees by New York standards, and that those who make a living benefit from a large ecosystem of paying clubs that improv artists don’t have access to.
Symbolism, however, can matter, particularly for a theatrical launching pad that helps shape the future of comedy. A policy of not paying performers — especially when starting improvisers are required to pay for three classes to get an audition at the theater — could send a message that improv is the province of the privileged few.
“One of the reasons you don’t see legions of black performers there,” Cyrus McQueen, an African-American improviser who studied at Upright Citizens Brigade, wrote in an e-mail, “is because I don’t know many minorities willing or able to work for nothing to get stage time.”
Mr. Besser sounded surprised about this point. “I never thought of it that way,” he said, though he conceded, “It’s true there are more African-American stand-ups.” But he argued that the Upright Citizens’ model ultimately lifts everyone.
“We pay our performers,” he said, “just not with money.”