The Upright Citizens Brigade, once a thriving bicoastal network of improv theaters and classes founded by a group of successful comedians that includes Amy Poehler, will be shutting down its current New York operations, including its Hell’s Kitchen theater and the UCB Training Center, the company announced today via an email sent to its community.
Founded in 1999 by the four performers in the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe—Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts—the UCB Theatre and its training school have helped numerous comedians and performers start their careers over the last two decades. It has openly struggled with its finances for years, though, despite its stature, the success of its founders, the substantial prices of its classes, and its policy of not paying its performers. In 2017 UCB moved its main theater from its long-running home in Chelsea to the Hell’s Kitchen location. In 2019 UCB shut down its East Village theater, and also conducted layoffs and cutbacks. The big blow was the coronavirus, of course. Last month, with its theaters and classes closed and no reopening in sight, the company laid off all of its staff in both New York and Los Angeles, and many of the impacted employees were unhappy with how it was handled.
Those efforts haven’t been enough to save its New York operations. As the company writes in its email, which Paste has attained, “due to the unforeseen disaster that is COVID-19, we have made the heart wrenching, but necessary, decision to close down the UCB Hell’s Kitchen Theater and the 8th Avenue UCB Training Center in New York City.
“This is devastating to us, but for some time now, even in a normal, robust economy, we have barely been able to pay the high rents in New York City for the Hell’s Kitchen Theater and the Training Center,” the email continues. “Given the indefinite shutdown of all theaters and schools in both Los Angeles and New York City and the anticipated slow and uncertain return to normal when restrictions are lifted, we cannot afford to continue on in our New York City leases.”
UCB promises it’s not leaving the city entirely, though. It may not have a permanent home moving forward, but it hopes to promote shows at the venue SubCulture, and will offer classes “at various locations across the city” that will be rented “on a per-class basis.” As the email says, UCB “will continue to serve the New York City community to the fullest extent” that it can, and remains “open to the possibility of again having [its] own facilities in New York in the future if [it] can find an economically feasible way to do so.”
Still, the email strikes an ominous note about the future of the company. “Terminating the New York leases is not a cure-all for the financial health of the organization,” it says, “but one of many changes we will need to make as we restructure our organization moving forward.”
Long beloved by many vocal supporters, the UCB’s image has taken a hit throughout these years of instability, with its relationship with its performers and staffers growing increasingly contentious. One of the major issues has been the response of the original four founders (known as the UCB 4) to these changes. After all, the company has often been referred to as a kind of family, with the success of comedy superstar Poehler and fellow founder Walsh (who was a regular on Veep and has been one of the steadiest working comedic actors in Hollywood for years) tacitly serving as both encouragement and aspiration; when they seem indifferent to the struggles of the theater’s employees, students and performers, it can damage that connection. UCB’s culture has regularly been compared to a cult from those both inside and outside of the family, and the recent waves of layoffs and closures has clearly had an impact on that mentality. The email acknowledges these complaints, saying that “the UCB4 has heard your feedback asking for better communication, and we are committed to doing a better job moving forward.” Even without the coronavirus still pausing everything, it’s hard not to wonder if this commitment to “better communication” comes too late to save the UCB.