The Bad News Will Continue Until Morale Improves

UCBTNY's quasi-demise.

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The unbearably slow-motion death of UCB continued yesterday with the owners’ announcement that its Hell’s Kitchen venue and New York training center are shutting down. Here is their letter, sent from a general info email address, if you want to read the whole thing:

What a bafflingly endless tragedy. In the past ~16 months UCB has undergone two rounds of layoffs and closed two theaters. This latest series of setbacks may be the direct result of an unforeseeable disaster, but there is no separating it from the owners’ failures, namely their reckless 2017 decision to sign a $324,000/year, 15-year lease on a theater no one wanted or liked. After UCB East closed in early 2019 because its lease was too expensive, Ian Roberts said outright that the Hell’s Kitchen’s lease was “just as bad,” but they jumped on it anyway because theaters are hard to come by. Their priority, in other words, was to maintain the company’s size despite the tremendous costs. The problem now is not that they didn’t plan for disaster; as they said themselves, they barely accounted for “a normal, robust economy.”

The UCB 4 like to respond to criticism by saying none of their critics know how to run a business. Well, you don’t have to be an expert to know there is no law requiring that businesses spend upwards of a million bucks annually on rent and property taxes for two theaters in New York City. They could have had one theater where everyone got paid fairly and there was cash in reserve for rainy days. Instead they chose the big Midtown to-do with bad air conditioning and a 15-year lease they could not possibly afford long-term without a level of growth any idiot could see UCB would never enjoy again. Hell’s Kitchen was always going to be the theater’s undoing.

Unless it’s not undone—quite yet. What’s so maddening about this years-long collapse is the UCB 4’s simultaneous refusal to let the theater die and to articulate any vision for its future. What do they want for UCB, other than to survive until the next crisis? To go nonprofit and raise millions in grant money while getting all manner of tax breaks? To stay for-profit, but scale down and invite the theatre’s many wealthy alumni to become investor-owners alongside the founders? To complement the sales team with a fundraising operation that hits up alumni for donations to support the next generation of comedy workers? To actually, hear me out here, carry out the industry leadership role they’ve spent their way into?

Who knows. They haven’t said. What they have said with every new bit of bad news is that it’s not over, not yet, they’ll be back, in some form, they have this or that barebones plan to pull through, to cut costs, to continue serving the community they incidentally depend on for money, with all the same people at the helm. I consider this a form of manipulation. So long as there is some dream of UCB, there will be those who harken to that dream, who waste time and money on prestige snake oil when they could be working to rebuild the system UCB defined and destroyed. It seems beyond question now that whatever new UCB emerges from the rubble will not pay writers and performers; as the owners said, the school and theater will operate much as UCB did in its earliest days, that is, the era so many UCB defenders valorize even though it wrote the rules that brought us here. This cannot happen again. Any version of UCB that does not pay talent is corrupt, and any version with the UCB 4 in charge is doomed. Now is the time to learn from the past, not return to it.

Whenever this crisis ends and UCB resumes operations, it will fall on its remaining workers—performers, writers, teachers, artistic and office staff—to demand broad concessions from management, the least of which should be a wholesale change of management. That obviously will not happen for a long time, but there are still actions that can be taken now. UCB’s sole source of revenue until the widespread availability of a COVID vaccine will be its training center, which is still offering classes online. This gives teachers enormous leverage. They can use the threat of a work stoppage to demand that UCB replace its CFO, Daryl La Fountain, who was hired to turn the ship around and ended up overseeing the end of UCBTNY. They can call upon the UCB 4 to immediately publish a plan for the theater’s future, including talent pay and a transition to new ownership. And they can insist upon the release of detailed information about UCB’s finances: not only to determine how intermingled the theater’s money is with its owners’, but more importantly so decisions about the theater’s future can be made with a clear, common understanding of its past.

Would the UCB 4 meet these demands? I don’t know. I feel rather pessimistic, perhaps due to all the bad things that keep happening. I understand that teachers may be unwilling to take the risk of UCB calling their bluff, as teaching may be their primary source of income too. But I also suspect many of them know they can make more money teaching independently and cutting out the middleman, something they will have to do anyway when the middleman inevitably fails for good. Given what’s at stake—the future of UCB and all it influences—I think using their remaining leverage to fight for their community’s future is well worth the risk.

I cannot tell you how many times since last spring I have received some version of the same rumor: it’s all over. They’re shutting it down. It’ll all be done in a month, in three months, in the fall, everyone’s saying it. They sold the company, or they tried to sell it but no one bit, so they’re calling it a day. Again and again from different people inside or near the theater, the same certainty their artistic home would crumble sooner or later, the same fear it would be sooner, any day now.

Enough is enough. The UCB 4 have kept their entire community in a state of suspended grief for over a year. Now, after abruptly laying off dozens of staffers with no severance and shutting down almost their entire east coast operation, they want to suspend it even longer. For what? To hold onto a job they don’t want and can’t do, a workforce that holds them in contempt, a PR nightmare that won’t go away?

None of it makes sense. It never did. The question now isn’t how much longer they can get away with it, but how much longer they will be allowed to.


Header image via Ed Kwon.