How To Pay Improvisers During A Pandemic

What comedy theaters can learn from Dad's Garage.

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Like millions of workers, Ron Emile was hit hard when American life ground to a standstill in mid-March. The Atlanta comedian, originally from Brooklyn, split his time between three jobs: a newsroom gig at CNN, where he worked part-time; his own media company, which was in pre-production on three commercials; and acting, both on stage and screen. When the city shut down, “all three of those things stopped,” he told me; so did the production his partner was working on as a costume designer. Suddenly they had to find new ways to keep each other and their young son afloat.

Fortunately Emile’s comedy theater had his back.

Emile is a featured performer at Dad’s Garage, the Atlanta nonprofit comedy theater and training center. Founded in 1995, Dad’s Garage produces improv and original scripted shows on two stages—a mainstage theater and a smaller cabaret space—in the building it owns, a former church in the city’s Old Fourth Ward. The theater emphasizes narrative-based rather than game-based improv, and uses the form to develop plays for its scripted season. Its core ensemble of improvisers are paid for all shows, while featured performers, like Emile, are paid for their work in scripted shows and their flagship offering, TheatreSports. Performers also retain the rights to their written work, allowing them to earn money from shows that get licensed elsewhere. The theatre’s website currently lists 75 non-board employees, most of whom are talent.

When Atlanta ordered the closure of nonessential businesses, Dad’s Garage moved quickly to help its employees survive. It started producing shows on Twitch—performers initially received a cut of viewers’ donations, now a flat fee—and offering classes digitally. But Twitch donations could only go so far, and not everyone who works at the theater is a performer anyhow. “Our front of house staff, our technicians couldn't work through Twitch in the same way that our performers could,” Lara Smith, the theater’s Managing Director, told me. So she reached out to the company’s extended community—an email list of about 160 current and former talent—to find a more comprehensive solution. “I know some of you are now in dire straits and others of you are fine,” she told them. “So let’s raise money for those who are in dire straits.”

By the beginning of April, Dad’s Garage had raised an emergency fund of $23,000, which it distributed in no-stipulation grants to people who lost gigs and other work at the theater. One of those people was Emile, who said the funds were an essential lifeline as he figured out how to adapt to his new circumstances. “It helped me a great deal,” he told me. “To be able to get those funds and be able to pay some bills, buy some food, have some income coming in at that time when everything just shut down for me, it was monumental.”

The theater is currently raising funds for a second round of grants. But that’s not all it’s doing. By keeping its mostly W2 workforce on the books, Dad’s Garage allows many of its teachers, performers, and other staff to collect unemployment insurance (which the theater is filing for on their behalf, per a new rule in Georgia) while still working reduced hours. Smith told me she also recently signed the paperwork for two federal loans from the Small Business Administration. “So that’s a huge weight lifted,” she said. “‘Cause now we can operate through the end of 2020.”

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It has been less than two months since the coronavirus put an end to live performance for possibly years to come. The improv world has not taken it well, with even the biggest theaters buckling under the pressure. Second City went through several rounds of layoffs in March; UCB laid off all its New York-based staff, at least 40 people, before shutting down its remaining NYC theatre and training center. Meanwhile Dad’s Garage has nimbly weathered the storm, keeping its baseline operations operating, its performers performing, and its people paid. How did they do it?

Nothing too complicated, it turns out. Just a little planning ahead.

Smith, who has worked on and off at Dad’s Garage since 2007, told me the theatre’s board of directors has always budgeted for a surplus. This let the company build up sizable cash reserves for a rainy day, the first of which came in 2013, when it lost its previous (rented) theater to developers. “That’s the only reason we were able to weather losing our space and being homeless for two-and-a-half years,” Smith said. “So it’s always been a priority to just make sure we have a cushion.”

Two years ago a local foundation awarded Dad’s Garage a $70,000 grant exclusively for its operating reserve, and Smith’s team sat down to develop a formal reserves policy. They asked themselves how much breathing room they’d want if the theater ever shut down unexpectedly, ultimately settling on three months of expenses: bills, mortgage, payroll for office staff. “That's how we got to $180,000 as our goal for our operating reserve—three months of $60,000,” Smith said. “Of course, we thought that would be a very worst case scenario, ‘cause we would never want to stop paying our artists.”

Then there’s the theater’s commitment to taking care of its workers. When Smith and her team were in a succession planning training program several years ago, they had to identify what they’d want to protect most in a potential leadership transition crisis. “We identified financial stability and our culture,” Smith recalls. These became her guideposts when the pandemic hit. “If we’re not going to protect our people, there’s no point in protecting the organization,” she said. “I’m getting a little theoretical now, but theatre has been around since the beginning of time. And people are always like, but what if theatre goes away? And until this day, there’s still theatre. I’m not worried about theatre going away. What I need to protect are the people that are making the theatre.”

I asked Smith what goes through her head when she looks out at the comedy landscape and sees huge, for-profit theaters crumbling while Dad’s Garage chugs along. “I don't understand their business models at all,” she said. “I can't imagine operating a for-profit comedy house, because the thing is we get to take risks and invest in people's growth. I know that, for instance, some of the bigger institutions have to worry about—like, we have to stay kind of mainstream to appeal to a tourist audience. They can't take risks in the same way, and I think that stifles growth.”

“Our intellectual property policy is that artists maintain all of the intellectual property of the work that they create at Dad's,” she continued. “All we ask is that if it goes somewhere else, you say, This was created at Dad's Garage. And I think when you have intellectual property policies where the institution maintains more ownership, why would you give your best stuff to someone else? I think it really stifles creativity. I just think in order for people to take risks and be their best selves, they have to feel safe in every way. And so at the heart of the work that we do is kindness and taking care of each other.”

Then I asked Ron Emile what people can do to support him and other comedy workers until live performance venues someday, maybe, eventually reopen. “Give to local your arts organizations, support any live-streaming of comedy with a tip or donation or whatever,” he offered, recognizing that this is a “tremendous” ask in a time when many people aren’t working. “But even a dollar here or five dollars there could go a long way in helping our community at least maintain through this.”

“It would be really hard to thrive in it,” he concluded. “But if you're able to maintain in it, then you're ahead of the game.”


Are you a comedy worker affected by a workplace shutdown? Email or DM me if you want to talk.

Header image via YouTube.