I’ve already written about this “should UCBT pay its performers?” debate. I even “discussed” the issue with Jason Zinoman on Twitter before he wrote his NY Times article. And many other people have written wonderful defenses of the UCBT model.
Personally, I think comparing UCBT performers to corporate interns and strippers is ludicrous. Corporate interns are hoping to gain a foothold in the company where they’re interning, but no one at UCBT is looking to gain a foothold in the low-rent alt-comedy theatre business. And, not to denigrate the art of stripping, but I’ve never heard anyone say “I’m only doing comedy to put myself through college.”
Comparing UCBT to Second City also doesn’t make much sense. Second City produces one show at a time (per stage) with one small cast, and UCBT produces multiple shows per week with hundreds of performers. Obviously the better Chicago comparison is iO, where (as far as I know) performers are not paid.
But I’m not interested in defending UCBT’s perspective anymore. I’d rather talk about why, as a selfish, career-minded
artist comedian ne’er-do-well, the UCBT model works for me.
When I moved to NY, I was hired as an intern in the Musical Theatre department of Manhattan Theatre Club. They paid me $150/week. I had to do 40 hours/week of office work then cover shows at night. So I was paid, give or take, $3/hour. I was not rich. I had no money. And you can’t live in NY on that salary. So I took a third-shift job and basically didn’t sleep for a year. It was hard. But I did it because there were a million things MTC had to offer me worth more than money.
So yes, I was paid at MTC. But if they had paid me nothing, it would not have changed my situation one bit. However, if they had been forced to pay a real salary for that position, I’m sure the job would have gone to someone with actual qualifications. And I wouldn’t have had a chance.
I also produced and directed Off-Off-Broadway theatre during my early years in NYC. The creative side of working on those many endeavors was always very satisfying, but the upfront costs were substantial (theatre rental, production costs, marketing, etc.). The risk was ours and thus the profits were also ours. But of course, there were no profits. No one saw those shows. Even when our shows were actually good, we had to beg our family and friends to pay $15-$20/ticket to (hopefully) break even. So during all of this, I had a day job to pay my bills.
Later I wrote a one-man show that was accepted into the NY Fringe Festival. They shared a percentage of the ticket sales, but I had to pay a submission fee and a substantial production fee upfront to perform my show. And they provided almost no marketing support so I had to pay for that as well. I also had to sign a contract that promised them a percentage of all future royalties. So yes, I was “paid,” but it cost me much more money than I made.
When I finally found my way to UCBT (a story for another time), I couldn’t believe it. No more upfront production costs. No more gouging my friends and family with high ticket prices. And a built-in audience bigger than any I had ever seen Off-Off-Broadway. Also the UCBT had no interest at all in owning any part of the future of my show. And all I had to trade away was a share of the paltry $5/ticket box office. Deal!
I wrote a second one-man show and ran it at UCBT. I started directing shows at UCBT. And suddenly people in the industry wanted to talk to me. They knew who I was. They were actually seeing what I could do. That had never happened at any point during my years spent in the underground tunnels of Off-Off-Broadway. So when Scott Brown and I wrote GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL! (a show inspired by my time at MTC), we traded a share of box office receipts at some other theatre for all the perks UCBT had to offer. It was a no-brainer. And because of the UCBT model, we got to develop the show on its feet, in front of an audience, at no cost to us.
Later the NY Musical Theatre Festival (another institution with shared box office and substantial upfront production costs) approached UCBT about including some UCBT shows in their festival. It was a mutually beneficial partnership - UCBT made NYMF hipper and NYMF made UCBT more legit in the eyes of the theatre community. But no monies were shared and no business models were compromised. However, because of that deal, a producer from London discovered GUTENBERG! and brought it to London, then to Off-Broadway (where, full disclosure, Jason Zinoman reviewed it). The UCBT asked for nothing. In fact, they actually chose to invest money in the Off-Broadway production. But because of many factors (a major one being that the for-profit Off-Broadway business model doesn’t really work), I’m pretty sure the UCBT got almost none of that money back.
So yes, I come at all of this from a theatre background. And I understand that other people don’t see the same benefits I see in what the UCBT model has to offer. But that doesn’t make it right or wrong. After many years performing at UCBT, I was paid to perform improv with the UCB Touring Co. and I eventually decided I’d rather turn those shows down to perform at UCBTNY on Saturday nights for free. The money (which, again, was not enough to pay my bills) wasn’t worth as much to me as the experience of performing for a sold out weekend crowd. That was my choice. Performing at UCBT is my choice. And even now when my day job is, finally, doing the things I hope will be my long-term career, I keep performing at UCBT because it gives me what I want. If it didn’t, I’d go find it somewhere else.