After the killing of George Floyd in May and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests across the country, members of the improv community have begun to organize and demand change at their home theaters in regards to equality, diversity, and racist work cultures. The movement kicked off when Upright Citizens Brigade alum and Astronomy Club cast member Keisha Zollar tweeted a thread on June 3 about her experience working as UCB’s diversity coordinator in New York, a job she was not paid for. (Zollar did not name UCB in her Twitter thread, but UCBers were quick to make the connection, and UCB later acknowledged it.) “Now that I have some career comedy shit under my belt, I look back at those time[s] with both love for the people and anger because I was not paid for my time. Therefore not truly respected,” she said. The following day, on June 4, Second City alum and Brooklyn Nine-Nine writer Dewayne Perkins responded to the theater’s Black Lives Matter support tweet with a thread of his own, in which he outlined several ways the theater fostered a racist environment for Black performers and said he “had so much anxiety/fear built up from being in such a toxic predominately white environment.”
Zollar’s and Perkins’s Twitter threads sparked a larger conversation about how improv theaters have failed Black and POC performers and staffers, but the news comes at a time when theaters are already struggling financially. Most venues remain closed due to the pandemic, and many staffers have been laid off. (Due to the pandemic, in March about two-thirds of Second City’s staff were laid off, and UCB laid off all of its staff on both coasts.) At UCB in particular, distrust in leadership and uncertainty about the theater’s future has been brewing among the UCB community since the layoffs. In the midst of all this, UCB has revealed its plan to pursue a nonprofit status for its struggling theaters, but UCB’s Black performers and alums say that’s far from enough; addressing systemic racism on all levels, by leadership and by the community, is the only path forward.
Here’s an overview of what’s happened so far in the growing movement to hold the biggest improv theaters accountable and the steps the institutions have pledged to take going forward.
Upright Citizens Brigade
After Zollar’s Twitter thread about her unpaid work as a diversity coordinator on June 3, other members of the UCB community began sharing their experiences of racism at the theater. This included Native performers Kelly Lynne D’Angelo and Joey Clift as well as Black performers like Shaun Diston, who outlined the tokenization of Black students and performers at the theater in a post on Instagram. “This is a common experience for people of color at UCB. Being chewed up and spit out for the purposes of diversity. I fought very hard to perform again, but many POCs in my position end up leaving the theater for good,” he wrote. “The politics of an improv theater are the least of the issues we have facing us but if and when UCB reopens, I’d love to go back to a community that does more to dismantle racism.”
On June 8, UCB addressed the community’s calls for a more organized discussion and pledged to hire a diversity director and schedule a town-hall discussion. UCB also said on Twitter on June 3 that it had reached out to Zollar about her unpaid work, but the theater has not yet announced if she has been paid. Zollar’s husband, Andrew Kimler, said on Twitter that she has not yet been paid, and when reached for comment, Zollar told Vulture that while she wants to settle the issue with UCB, she’s currently busy dealing with chronic health issues.
The reckoning at UCB lines up with another big change at the theater that has allegedly been in the works for several months. On June 13, UCB’s four co-founders, a.k.a. the UCB 4 — Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts — sent an email to the UCB community announcing that since February 2020, they’ve been pursuing nonprofit status for the theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The email stated that “immediately upon receipt of nonprofit status, the UCB 4 will hand off control of the theaters to a diverse board, under whose guidance, and with the input of our community, will institute far reaching changes in the way the theaters operate. Among many other issues, the board will be charged with addressing the questions of systemic racism and inequality within the theaters.” The email also stated that starting August 1, the co-founders “will no longer handle day to day operations of the training center. The training center will be operated by a leadership team which will include a Diversity Director to be hired with the input of UCB’s BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities.” However, the co-founders did not specify whether they are also pursuing nonprofit status for the training center, which is reportedly the only part of UCB that is profitable.
Prior to the UCB 4’s announcement, members of the UCB community had already been organizing toward actionable goals. On June 15, a group of diverse veteran UCB performers announced on Twitter the launch of a new initiative called Project Rethink, in which they demanded to be directly involved with developing the way UCB is structured moving forward. “Receiving word that UCB was changing its business model and restructuring the theater from the top down was encouraging, but it’s not enough,” the announcement stated. “Mainly, if the theater is changing its business model, we are demanding a seat at the table in the planning stages.” The announcement noted that the co-founders’ latest update “does not address systemic racism at the school,” and it provided several actionable steps for the theater to take, including reforming the training center and replacing the previously one-person role of artistic director with an “artistic committee.”
“We are reconstructing the UCB theatre from the ground up, with leadership’s enthusiastic permission,” Scam Goddess host and Project Rethink member Laci Mosley explained to Vulture. “We believe that it is imperative that marginalized voices take precedence in this reform because we are personally tied to these experiences of discrimination and we know how to correct them. We have tried to work within existing systems, and much like on the macro level, there is no way to reform a system that was not built to consider marginalized communities; it must be rebuilt.”
UCB responded to Project Rethink’s announcement on Twitter soon after its release and said it “look[s] forward to working w/ you and following your lead to make UCB theatre & school the inclusive community we know it can be.”
Dewayne Perkins’s widely circulated Twitter thread, which outlined his experiences with racism at Second City, prompted other performers and alums from the theater to speak out as well, including Ali Barthwell, Aasia LaShay Bullock, and Shantira Jackson. On June 4, the day after Perkins’s thread, the theater announced that its longtime CEO Andrew Alexander would resign from his position. “The Second City cannot begin to call itself anti-racist. That is one of the great failures of my life,” Alexander said in a letter posted to the Second City website. “On stage, we dealt with the absurdity of the equal opportunity narrative that society uses to oppress BIPOC. We dealt with the double standard that rationalizes violence against people of color. We dealt with the cynicism of the liberal pact with capitalism. Offstage, it’s been a different story.”
Alexander pledged to fill the executive producer role with “a member of the BIPOC community” and “divest myself from the company as it stands.” Artistic director Anthony LeBlanc, who will serve as interim executive producer until a permanent replacement for Alexander has been hired, said in a statement that “[w]hile the Second City has sometimes made strides in the diversity of talent performing on our stages, we have grossly fallen short when it comes to supporting that talent — and diversity at Second City — as whole. We must face the reality of our failings as an organization and hear the voices of our BIPOC performers, alumni, staff, students, and audience.”
On June 8, a group of Black Second City performers, staffers, and alums shared an open letter to the theater (signed by Amber Ruffin, Chris Redd, Ashley Nicole Black, Sam Richardson, and others) with a list of concerns and demands in the wake of Alexander’s resignation. The letter called for, among other things, investigations into Second City members who have either been racist against Black performers or are found guilty of sexual misconduct and sexual assault, as well as the hiring of an independent HR firm and “outside BIPOC-owned diversity and inclusion firm.” The letter noted that LeBlanc’s hiring as interim executive producer was no more than “integration into a burning house.” Members of Second City’s Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and Desi-American communities posted letters of support endorsing the concerns and demands of the Black performers and alums.
The Second City responded with an open letter of its own on June 11. “Over the last few days, we have read and heard condemnations of the Second City’s culture and work environment shared by our BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+ communities. We hear you, and we apologize for the extraordinary pain, trauma, and erasure that you have experienced. The Second City has long defended itself behind the excuse of upholding ‘tradition.’ That ends now,” the letter stated. It went on to commit to building an “industry-leading anti-racist, inclusive organization”; hiring an independent HR firm to investigate “all allegations of workplace discrimination, harassment, assault, and abuse”; assembling a “steering committee” of “BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+ representatives from the current student body” to hire the next executive producer; and hiring an outside diversity, equity, and inclusion firm. “To be clear: We are prepared to tear it all down and begin again,” the letter concluded. “As we devote resources toward these efforts, we hope that you will continue to call us out, hold us accountable, and be part of the dialogue necessary in order to fundamentally overhaul our infrastructure.”
Olivia Jackson, a performer at Chicago’s iO theater, started a Change.org petition on June 9, in which members of the iO community pledged to not perform at the theater until a list of demands regarding inclusion and diversity were met. (The petition currently has over 2,000 signatures.) Among the demands were a public apology from iO co-founder and owner Charna Halpern for “the institutional racism perpetuated at iO as well as her individual history of racism,” a commitment to “the decentralization of decision making within the theater,” the hiring of an “outside BIPOC diversity & inclusion coordinator,” and a “decolonized curriculum in order to create a learning environment where Black students can thrive.”
Halpern responded to the petition on June 10 with a letter that was sent to iO students, staff, and performers. “My heart breaks again to see and hear the experiences of BIPOC performers that have been uncomfortable, discriminated against, pained, and felt unheard at iO. As the owner of iO I must take responsibility for the failings in every department, and for my own failings. I am sorry,” Halpern wrote, going on to apologize for “patting myself on the back for incremental change,” “thinking small reforms were enough to fix systemic and institutional problems in our culture,” and “not acting more effectively to criticism and calls for change in the past.” She added that, in the past, she took critiques of the theater personally, but now sees that “I wouldn’t receive the critical comments and messages if people didn’t want the theater to change for the better. There wouldn’t be a petition signed by 1,500 and growing if they didn’t care for iO and want it to improve.”
While Halpern wrote that she will commit to the changes demanded in the Change.org petition, the future of the theater is financially uncertain. “Every day that we cannot open, the financial situation gets worse, and there is only so much time we have before the business will not be able to return … Regarding all seven of the petition’s demands, we only ask for your patience while we try to stabilize the future viability of the theater,” she wrote. “Our return, if and when it occurs, will likely be slow, and clumsy, and strange, but I pledge that it will also be open, transparent, and anti-racist. It is now our job to prove to the community that we are worthy of their talent and support as we get back on our feet and work to grow into a better version of iO.”
After iO’s “only all-BIPOC team” Free Street Parking sent Halpern an email backing up the demands in Jackson’s petition, Halpern sent a response on June 17 with big news: She decided to shut down the theater permanently. “I have always been open and interested in involving my community in change and growth in my theater. One can’t grow a business this big without doing that. Unfortunately, it’s not looking like iO will be able to open its doors,” she wrote, citing financial issues exasperated by the pandemic. “Over my 40 years, I have met many struggles to keep going and I did it to keep a place for my community to have stage time. But at this point in my life I can’t continue to struggle to stay open. I have taken the work this far and I now feel like you are all a community where you are strong and united enough to find a way to take the work further.” Halpern told the Chicago Tribune that the decision to shut down the theater was unrelated to the petition, “but one of the demands was [for] me to hire advisors, with a salary, and I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”
On June 10, the Groundlings posted a statement on Instagram and Twitter titled “Our Commitment to Change,” in which the Los Angeles–based improv theater and school pledged to continue its diversity programs, start monthly workshops “specifically for our BIPOC students,” ensure “more BIPOC voices will appear on our stage,” improve hiring practices, and provide anti-racist training for all performers, teachers, and staffers. The announcement drew some criticism, like from former student Jenny Lorenzo, who posted a Twitter thread on June 9 after receiving the email announcement from the theater. Lorenzo wrote that because theaters like the Groundlings “aren’t very inclusive,” she stopped taking classes. “Every time I was in the audience,” she wrote, “it was either an entire ensemble of folks who were strictly white or MAYBE there was one black performer.”
On July 6, Sunday Company alum Nick Bouier released an open letter he wrote to the Groundlings, which outlined the theater’s history of systemic racism and tokenizing of Black and non-Black POC performers. The letter included a list of actions the institution must take moving forward, including a complete rework of the school’s structure; the creation of an “accountability board” or “on-site therapy for students who’ve been mistreated by teachers, faculty, staff, and students”; outreach programs; and “a Rooney Rule for hiring in all departments.” The letter also called for the Groundlings to “hire an outside agent” to hold the theater accountable, and for both short- and long-term plans to be instituted as well as “revised and examined every two years.” Fifty current and former Groundlings students, teachers, and performers signed the letter.
“I hope they see this as a problem that they have the power to fix,” Bouier told Vulture. “They’re gatekeepers, but historically they’ve been part of the problem and not the solution. Making meaningful changes, and not just fixing tip-of-the-iceberg problems, could have an effect not only on the theater but the larger industry. Especially considering that many Groundlings alums are working.” Bouier said his goal in writing the open letter was to help the students currently at the theater “who deserve a fair shot,” and his hope is “to come back ten years or less from now to see real, impactful change. If that happens, then this letter will have actually had meaning.”
So what comes next, and why did it take so long for these theaters to pledge change? Project Rethink’s Laci Mosley said Black improvisers didn’t feel safe speaking up until recently. “When you aren’t a part of a power structure, expression of frustrations and grievances feels like a direct threat to your livelihood,” Mosley said, “so the status quo has maintained over time because marginalized people have been conditioned to survive within institutionalized racism.” George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests created a climate where white people are “feeling and witnessing oppression like they never have before,” she added, creating a “significant opportunity to take advantage of people’s attention spans that used to be so short when it came to BIPOC, LGBTQ, and differently abled people.”
Second City’s Dewayne Perkins is glad the reckoning has begun, but he has doubts it will result in the changes required to fully address the problem. “I am grateful for this moment of reckoning, but honestly, I’m not very hopeful for the future unless these comedy institutions find ways to not only decolonize and restructure the very homogeneous culture of improv but also their business models, which is heavily exclusionary to people of color and of a lower-class level,” he told Vulture. “The thing no one wants to talk about is that improv was made by affluent white people for affluent white people, and I think it will continue to be that unless nonwhite people are allowed equity or some kind of ownership within it to effect and inflict change. If not we will always simply be guests in the house of comedy the white man built.”
But maybe, thanks to the formation of Project Rethink, that kind of ownership by Black and POC improvisers is now within reach. According to Mosley, many UCB performers were “considering leaving the theater altogether” prior to UCB committing to restructuring alongside the newly formed group. “We are organized and committed to enacting change at our theater ourselves because we have been assured the space and power to do so,” she said. “We love UCB, which is why we are trying to create a new UCB that includes the amazing diverse community we have developed. We cannot come back to the old UCB.”
This post includes breaking news and has been updated throughout.