Is It Time for UCB to Start Paying Performers?

Performing improv or standup on a UCB stage might be fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s not labor worthy of payment – especially when you’re performing in front of an audience who paid money to be there, and the tech in charge of the lights shining down on you is getting paid money for his or her work. That’s just part of the argument presented by Seth Simons at Paste today in a piece called “Upright Citizens Brigade and the Case for Paying Improvisors,” and no matter what side of the issue you stand on, if you’re involved with UCB or a similar improv theater, the piece is well worth the read. Here’s an excerpt:

UCB is a place where people can take creative risks in search of their voice—but only certain people. As I’ve written before, if one must pay thousands of dollars to perform at UCB, then only those with thousands of dollars to spare will perform at UCB. This limits the talent pool to the financially comfortable, who are, not coincidentally, largely white. By limiting the experiences and points of view reflected onstage, UCB in turn limits the nature of risks taken and voices found. This has far-reaching ramifications. As UCB is fond of mentioning, it has launched countless performers to successful careers in television and film. The widespread racial and gender inequity in show business is by no means UCB’s fault, but inequity at the base of the pyramid necessarily contributes to inequity at the top. If UCB truly cares about the doors it opens to comedians, then it must recognize that those doors only open for a select few. And if it truly cares about giving artists creative freedom, then it must recognize that right now this freedom comes at a steep price, a price that will only rise as rents climb and wages stagnate. UCB can mitigate that price by paying its performers.

The piece addresses then debunks many of the common arguments that have been leveled against paying performers, such as the idea that performing improv is not labor, paying performers would result in a ticket price hike, paying would “kill the vibe” of UCB, and – referencing an argument often used by UCB alums who have gone on to land TV jobs – performers don’t mind performing for free since it leads to paying gigs later. The piece’s response to that last argument brings up an important point: Not every young aspiring comedian, especially those living in 2018 New York or Los Angeles, has that luxury, and the implications of that go far beyond who is performing at UCB on any given night:

This isn’t about you. It really isn’t! It’s about everyone who didn’t get the chances you got, or who got them but couldn’t take them, or who took them and had to give them up. It’s about everyone who toiled until they couldn’t afford to toil anymore and everyone who couldn’t afford to toil in the first place. That’s actually a whole lot of people! Your example is not proof that anyone can do it, but proof that someone in your exact circumstances could do it—nothing more. I’m not saying you didn’t earn your TV gig, but that right now UCB grads, your peers, are going out for roles in sketches and web series and commercials produced by web companies who will pay them far less than they’re worth. They’re taking these roles because they’ve been taught to devalue what they do. They’ve been taught that if they work for less now, they’ll get more later from an industry built to exploit them. Do you really think their sacrifices will pay off? I don’t—I think they’ll work for pittance after pittance until most of them give up the dream entirely. It’s bad out there. Don’t you get that? And if you do, and if you want it to get better, which I know you tell people you do, is it really so hard to accept that your precious improv club bears some responsibility?

Citing Variety’s recent report on the recently launched business partnership between UCB and a handful of New York ad agencies, the piece notes that UCB is already banking on the reality that improv is a skill worth paying for, so any argument that improv is not labor has already been proven false by UCB itself. Another important point: “People come to UCB to find entrance into an industry scarred by devastating inequality. UCB is a part of that industry and complicit in that inequality. Inequality is the status quo; it won’t change unless we change it. If your argument is that the status quo worked for you, then you’re arguing for that inequality to persist.”

Head over to Paste to read the full piece.

Is It Time for UCB to Start Paying Performers?