Ahead of co-hosting the 2021 Golden Globes with Tina Fey on February 28, Amy Poehler sat down for an interview with the New York Times, and when asked about the future of the improv theater she co-founded, the Upright Citizens Brigade, she offered an uncertain response. “What we said in our statement was true, which is, we were trying to own up to the things we did wrong or didn’t know or know now,” she said. “It’s a tough time to survive.” After adding that the past year has been “an opportunity to hear from people who felt that they needed more or less of things and to change things,” including Project Rethink formed by UCB alums, she was asked if she sees a path to UCB reopening post-COVID. “I don’t know. It’s been brutal for us,” she said. “We’re basically using the fire of Covid to start some new version. We’re changing our school and our theater to not-for-profit. Whether or not we’ll be able to get there, I don’t know.”
UCB has faced a series of challenges over the past two years that began when the theater announced the closure of its East Village location in New York, in January 2019, due to financial issues. In mid-March 2020, theaters on both coasts went dark due to the pandemic, and soon after, an email was sent announcing that all theater staff had been laid off. The layoffs led to backlash from the UCB community, with multiple performers and theater staffers criticizing co-founders Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts for their handling of the layoffs, as well as alleging mismanagement of the theater more generally; one former staffer told Vulture that how the layoffs were handled made it feel “like the beginning of the end” for UCB.
The co-founders addressed the criticism in late March in an email to the UCB community, and Poehler admitted in a Hollywood Reporter interview in April 2020 that the co-founders “did make mistakes, and we’re trying to do better.” The Hollywood Reporter interview was published a day after UCB announced the closure of its Hell’s Kitchen theater and training center on 8th Avenue, marking the end of an official UCB space on the East Coast. Eight months later, the co-founders announced that one of UCB’s two theaters in Los Angeles, Sunset, was also closing, leaving the Franklin location as the last remaining physical UCB space on either coast. The co-founders also announced at the time that they would continue to work with Project Rethink — which was formed by a group of diverse UCB performers over the summer when performers at multiple improv theaters demanded that their leaders address systemic racism — as well as pursue nonprofit status, after which they would “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.”
UCB isn’t the only comedy venue to struggle over the past year. In June 2020, Chicago improv institution iO shuttered permanently, while New York venues Dangerfield’s and the Creek and the Cave shut down in October and November, respectively. Like iO and UCB, Second City faced reckonings over institutionalized racism last summer, which led CEO Andrew Alexander to resign in June. The theater was sold to the private-equity firm ZMC last week for a reported $50 million.