institutions

UCB Could Be Facing ‘the Beginning of the End’ Amid Coronavirus

UCB Hell’s Kitchen in New York. Photo: Courtesy of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre/Trip Advisor

The Upright Citizens Brigade has weathered its fair share of storms over the years, but last week, some employees’ growing mistrust in its founders hit a boiling point. On March 12, UCB’s New York and Los Angeles artistic directors sent emails to performers and employees on both coasts announcing its theaters and training centers would close indefinitely due to the coronavirus. Two days later, a UCB press release announced that its annual Del Close Marathon would be postponed until the fall. Then, on March 17, came the big one: An email announcing that all theater staff — from theater techs and managers to training center employees, maintenance workers, and baristas — were laid off. It’s unclear exactly how many people lost their jobs, but one UCBer roughly estimated a total of 40 to 60 people on each coast were affected.

UCB is not unique in finding itself imperiled by the coronavirus. Theaters in major cities are now mostly required by law to be closed, and layoffs have hit most industries. But for UCB, last week’s layoffs were just the latest addition to a list of controversial upheavals for the company in recent years, including climbing ticket prices in early 2017, the move from Chelsea to the bigger, less convenient Hell’s Kitchen theater in late 2017, mass layoffs in 2018, shuttering the East Village theater in 2019, and constant debate surrounding its choice to not pay performers.

Throughout it all, UCB leadership and its founders (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, a.k.a. “the UCB 4”) have rarely commented on its ongoing struggles and decisions, fueling gossip and speculation from those in and outside the community regarding the theater’s finances and management tactics. And sure enough, the organization has provided no public statement about the latest round of layoffs, leaving many former employees confused and worried about their future. For some, the coronavirus layoffs aren’t an isolated incident; they symbolize the theater’s years of mismanagement and inability to support the community it built. There’s growing sentiment among many people in the UCB community that even if the theaters return post-coronavirus, they may not.

In the case of the eight former part- and full-time UCB employees who spoke with Vulture, some under the condition of anonymity, the layoffs have highlighted one of UCB’s biggest problems: communication. According to Delaney Sweet, former regional manager of the New York theaters since last year, the staff was assured via email a week prior to the layoffs that no big changes were expected, and again after the email announcing the theater closures. “The next communication after that was the email letting us know that we were laid off,” Sweet said. All of the former employees agreed that the layoffs were handled poorly, with some saying the lack of transparency broke the remaining trust they had for UCB. Jess Augustyn, who had worked as assistant registrar at the training center in New York since 2017, said, “While there was a pandemic happening, I wish they called me? Video chatted? Sent a letter? I don’t know, but to be laid off in a mass email is truly insane.”

Another issue highlighted by the botched layoffs announcement is how poorly the business is run. Caitlin Linden, who worked as a barista at UCB Sunset in Los Angeles, described it as “a revolving door of accountants, HR representatives, and café managers,” where people get “fired abruptly.” UCB currently has no HR representative; the last one left in early February, after which CFO Daryl LaFountain took over the role. One employee described LaFountain as “unreachable,” and alleged that he refused to meet with employees directly when they had issues. (The CFO who preceded LaFountain resigned in May 2019 after six months on the job.) When leadership is reachable, they have a history of being misleading: During a New York all-hands meeting in December 2018, Besser allegedly “dismissed concerns” that the UCB East location might close. It closed in February 2019.

Cassi Jerkins, who worked as a theater tech at UCB Sunset in Los Angeles for over five years, noted that her other job has provided COVID-19-related resources to its employees, such as guidance on how to file for unemployment, get free food, or receive aid for sick family members. They also have been emailing staffers to check in on them personally, unlike UCB. “Experiencing the juxtaposition of how different management teams are handling this unexpected and scary time has been eye-opening on how a business can be a resource for their employees, even if it’s just saying, ‘I know this is tough, we’re here with you,’” Jerkins said. “It’s disappointing that the place I’ve been with the longest, solely out of love, has been the coldest.” She described UCB leadership’s response to the layoffs as “radio silence from up top. We are on our own.” Another former employee described it as “my final sign from UCB that they don’t care about their employees’ well-being … UCB is and always has been the people, and they have not been treating their people correctly for some time.”

The UCB 4 declined to comment to the media but have reportedly mailed letters to employees directly affected by the layoffs. (Six former employees say they have not yet received the letter.) Emails to Poehler and Roberts’ reps went unanswered, and Besser and LaFountain did not respond to inquiries about the layoffs. LaFountain’s email sent an auto reply that stated, in part, “At this time we have no updates, once we do we as a team will be sure you are each notified. We are unable to field calls, texts and emails.” LaFountain did, however, call reporter Seth Simons on March 20, but he provided no clear information about the layoffs and instead threatened Simons with a slander and libel lawsuit. (You can read a transcript of the bizarre conversation here.)

As part of the layoffs, UCB employees were paid through the end of last week, full-timers will lose their health insurance at the end of March, and the amount of unused PTO UCB paid out depends on the requirements for each state: L.A. staffers were paid for the full amount they were owed, while New York staffers were given the maximum requirement of 40 hours. But according to some UCBers, not everyone has been paid what they are owed, and some have not been paid at all or heard back on their inquiries as to when they will be. All employees’ UCB email accounts were deleted the day after the layoffs were announced, “basically disabling our communication system with them,” one former employee put it.

Not lost on affected employees and onlookers alike are the high-profile careers and comfortable net worths of the co-founders, particularly Poehler; many cite feelings of abandonment and betrayal directed at the four once-scrappy DIY improvisers who built a comedy institution out of a former strip club, but who now won’t acknowledge the hardships and anguish of a generation they inspired. Linden attributes much of her frustration to that disconnect.

“The UCB 4 had a moment to be heroes and help their part-time staff by giving each of us our PTO, or even like $50 bucks, but instead we just got laid off,” she says. “All I hear is silence from a once-punk-rock corporation owned by multimillionaires that claims to be perpetually broke, but sells improv classes for nearly $500 bucks a pop,” she said. “It would have been sweet if the UCB 4 could look down at the little community they created — at all the unpaid work-study interns, part-timers, salaried employees working more than 40 hours a week — and offer to provide some relief. UCB doesn’t have our backs.”

Where the UCB 4 and leadership fell short with communication and support, the broader community stepped in. To help the employees who were suddenly faced with no job, money, or health insurance in the middle of a pandemic, on March 18, UCBers set up GoFundMe campaigns for theaters on both coasts to raise money for the laid-off employees. Former New York training center employee Paris Adkins and L.A.-based performer Pete Byrnes launched the campaigns for their respective coasts, and they said “it’s really been amazing” to see the outpouring of support. Both campaigns have raised over $50,000 so far.

Besser was the only UCB co-founder to amplify the GoFundMe campaigns during the week of the layoffs. He shared the links on Twitter two days after they launched, along with a link to online classes. But his tweet was misleading: Besser said it was to help “part time staff while we are down,” even though the layoffs affected the majority of the company, including full-timers. Another former employee said that attempts to contact Walsh, Poehler, and Roberts have all gone unanswered. UCB alum and Adam Ruins Everything host Adam Conover shared the GoFundMe links within hours after they launched and called out the founders to do the same. Looking back on Conover’s quick support compared to the founders’ silence, one former employee said the UCB 4 “should be embarrassed about this.” Another UCBer said it “feels like they know they did something wrong, and no one wants to own up to it. It’s sad to look at a theater like Second City, who donated $25,000 to their night staff, and not see that support from UCB.”

The mismanagement of UCB and silence of its founders have led to a feeling of uncertainty about the theater’s future — even though the artistic directors called the layoffs “temporary,” and online classes have been promoted on Twitter by Besser (who has since deleted his tweet) and Walsh. “No one from management has said anything since we were laid off. I have no idea if UCB will reopen in New York, or if I’ll have a job when it does,” one former employee said. “It makes it feel like the beginning of the end, which I hate to say, at least for the New York theaters,” another former employee added.

Jerkins hopes that if the theater attempts to bounce back, employees will be more involved, and respected, throughout that process. “I do believe if they were communicating more and showing compassion, the community would rally to keep it going,” she said. “But I know, for me, it will be difficult to rally. I keep thinking that even if I am offered my job back, I can’t in good faith go back without knowing they are changing to be more community-based moving forward.”

For some, that might mean a more modest UCB rebirth, with presumed downsizing and theater closures; to others, it’s something new entirely. Despite years of mismanagement, UCB has been successful in building a tight-knit community that works for the love of comedy first and a paycheck second. Theaters might shut down, employees might get laid off, and founders might walk away, but the spirit UCB created isn’t going anywhere — except, maybe, to a new home.

“I know people are afraid of burning bridges that could lead to creative job opportunities,” Jerkins said, “but after this, I hope people can see that we can rise up and continue to create art with or without the theater.” Or as Sweet put it, “Coming out of this, I want people to feel empowered to make a change. We can still be a part of the community, even if we don’t work for UCB.” Thanks to an international pandemic with no end in sight, one thing is certain: All those former UCB employees now have a lot of free time trapped in their homes to reflect on what comes next.

Update, March 24: The UCB 4 shared the letter they mailed to its laid-off staffers to the rest of the UCB community, which you can read here. The founders also announced that Poehler has offered to cover a one-month extension of health-care coverage for the former full-time staffers who qualify.

UCB Could Be Facing ‘the Beginning of the End’