[Between my impending cabaret and my beloved improv team* and my new job I have been a crazy panda. I promise to be better. Please don’t start reading some other whiny endangered animal’s blog and leave me on the internet all alone.]
Thanks to the New York Times for inspiring me to write this morning with an article about the recent controversy surrounding the theater where I take my improv classes, The Upright Citizens Brigade. UCB has been slowly integrating stand-up comedians into its mostly improv and sketch line-up. UCB doesn’t pay its performers, which keeps its costs low which keeps its theaters full. According to Kurt Metzger, the comedian who opened this can of worms, stand-up performers accustomed to about a $20 payout at the end of the evening.
Comedians, I hear you. It’s hard out here for a pimp. Performers are hustlers and self-motivators. No one is more undervalued for skills honed and crafted over decades like artists. We should all be getting fucking paid. I get it. I really, really do.
That said, these people are acting like a fistful of assholes. I’ve been in New York City about six and a half years. In the first five, I performed in the city a total of four times. If you averaged all of those times out, I probably paid to perform. I have a degree in musical theater and I am very, very good. Mine is not a unique story. There are a ton of talented performers out there and there are so few jobs. When the economy hit the skids and regional theaters closed all over the country, those jobs were further whittled down. This is not fair, but it is true.
Since I started taking classes at the school, almost exactly one year ago, my life has changed completely. I’ve been onstage more times than I can easily count. I met other people who like to make a performance out of nothing. I have been more proactive about creating my own art. I don’t do any of these things because I think there’s a payout at the end of it, big or small. I do it because I can’t stand not to.
As recently as two years ago, I was so unhappy I don’t know how I got out of bed every day. I was staring down my second vocal cord surgery. I hadn’t been onstage in forever. I wasn’t auditioning. I was scared and I was angry and I felt like everything I’d worked for my whole life was over. It was not fair, but it was true.
Finding a community where I could belong and perform and try things and suck and be awesome saved my life. I’m protective of the Upright Citizens Brigade emotionally. But, I’m also pragmatic. The real deal is that UCB does not make a ton of money off of ticket sales. Tickets cost $5 on weeknights and $10 on weekends. On any given night, its audiences consist primarily of students at the school. Monday through Thursday shows are free for students. If you do the math of keeping the theaters open, paying UCB’s hardworking teachers, employing a technical staff, and the day-to-day of running a school, it’s clear that the theaters’ founding members are not sitting on piles of money they made from ticket revenues, laughing and twirling mustaches at each other over all the sucker comedians who perform free slave labor to keep the coffers full.
Does it suck to not get paid to perform? Yes. I have spent a small fortune on training and honing my skills as an actress and a singer. I have just begun to spend a small fortune to become a better improviser. I should be getting rewarded for that work. I see performing in a city where stage time is at a premium as a huge reward. How, and if one turns that opportunity into a profitable endeavor is up to that individual. Furthermore anyone who gets into stand-up or improv or really any field in the arts for the money is going to spend a lifetime steeped in disappointment. It’s not fair, but it’s true.
*Self-promotion is best served shamelessly.