Seven months after the Upright Citizens Brigade announced the closure of its New York theater and training center, UCB alums have banded together to create a new sketch-comedy and improv theater of their own. Announced today is the launch of the nonprofit Squirrel Comedy Theatre in New York, which was co-founded by former UCB New York artistic director Michael Hartney alongside former UCB performers and teachers Lou Gonzalez, Patrick Keene, Maritza Montañez, Corin Wells, and Alex Song-Xia. Wells told Vulture the group was inspired by the formation of Project Rethink in June, a group of diverse West Coast–based veteran UCB performers who organized to demand more transparency and involvement with how the comedy theater was run. “We all came together back in June with similar visions of what a successful, inclusive, financially stable community-first theater could look like,” Wells said. “And we decided to try to make it happen.”
Per the theater’s mission statement on its website, the Squirrel’s goal is to become “New York’s premier destination for sketch and improv comedy, with world-class live shows and classes from a diverse group of the city’s best and brightest performers and writers.” The guiding principles of the theater will be “community, representation, transparency, and equality,” and the website notes that equality will begin with the theater “financially compensating its artists.” The mission statement adds that the Squirrel, while inspired by the training that UCB offered, will take on “a new structural and organizational approach more in line with the wants and needs of the greater comedy community.”
Diversity is also a key element of the Squirrel’s mission. “Starting with its majority-queer and POC foundership, we want this community to more closely resemble the vibrant melting pot of the city we’re in,” the mission statement continues. “By ensuring that there are diverse voices in leadership, on our stages, and in our classrooms from day one, we will attract more diverse audiences and students. The Squirrel will not merely give diversity a seat at the table; it will be the table.”
Due to COVID-19, the Squirrel’s launch this week is a virtual one, with an announced schedule of upcoming online classes and streaming shows on YouTube. “We’re launching this during the pandemic because we miss comedy, but maybe just as much we miss the community surrounding it,” Song-Xia told Vulture, noting that since it might take a while until live theater returns, it’s important to the founders to “hopefully reach new people and groups who might not have found comedy classes and shows as accessible before.” Classes will cost $265, and the theater will offer “need-based scholarships to students from marginalized backgrounds as well as pay-what-you-can workshops,” in addition to “free classes to students from marginalized communities.” The group hopes to secure a physical space once the pandemic allows for live theater again, so the founders are currently requesting donations via the Squirrel website, which will go toward both the “building fund” and funding scholarships and free classes.
“We loved our time at UCB — the comedic tools we were taught, the sense of community,” Hartney told Vulture when asked what lessons the group members are taking from their time at UCB to build Squirrel. “We want to preserve those things while also making sure we have representation and inclusion from day one, a firm handle on the business side of things, and, when we get back onstage, that artists get a cut of the door.”
“At the end of the day, it’s about leadership,” Gonzalez added. “We hope to rebuild a community that has been sort of abandoned, and we believe this group can and will do that. Squirrel Theatre is a place where we can not only support each other but uplift and empower voices that have been ignored by the very institutions we came from. Right now, we are small, so there’s only so much we can do. However, with time, care, love, and being funny badasses, we can make something cool and special.”