Thoughts on the state of improv based on a New Yorker article written for moms in Connecticut

I know we get all excited when the mainstream media decides to throw improv a bone, but the New Yorker article on UCB contained some quotes that struck me as slightly worrying.

“That was in the days when we would hand out flyers,” Walsh said.
Besser frowned, and said, “Students should still have to do that — like Indian rituals where you don’t even know why you’re doing it. Just handing out pieces of paper.”
Walsh: “With nothing on them.”
Roberts: “Like a hazing!”

While I understand that the mechanisms for performing and studying improv were much less defined when the UCB 4 were coming up, this anecdote presents an idea that improvisors today have it easy. That they should be glad to have a bevy of schools teaching multiple styles of performance. That we don’t know how bad it could be. Having just graduated from college where issues like this are being debated constantly, this rings a little out of touch. It’s the improv equivalent of saying that kids are so soft nowadays because they ask for content warnings on the syllabus. It feels extremely dangerous for three white men who for better or for worse define the course of improv study in America to be insinuating that students should be “hazed” because that’s the way it’s always been. I understand that it’s probably a joke, but I’ve heard older improvisors sometimes say the same sort of idea. That we kids can’t complain because we don’t know how bad it could be.

“I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job,” he said. “We pay our performers, just not with money.”

This Matt Besser quote is from a 2013 NYT article, but I didn’t encounter it until the New Yorker article today. I’ve been having discussions with people recently about the improv culture in NYC. Improv is treated with the highest respect, often spoken about as a high art, and people often complain that it’s not seen as a legitimate form of theatre. But I also see performers leave shows early or hang out in the back while other shows are going on. Rehearsals are poorly planned and people often cancel or not show up at all. Media outreach is maybe an obtuse Facebook event two days before the show. I’m guilty of all three of these things on a regular basis. But I feel like this quote shows that this culture comes from the top. People don’t care enough about their performance to see it as something that really requires work. It’s not a part of the “industry,” it’s just a goof on the side. That’s all well and good, but if that’s how we feel about it, why do the theatres tweet and promote every time an alum gets a development deal? Why is it that we are ok with the Broad City narrative being defined by their rejection to UCB? In the end, what do we get back from our establishment?

The answer is community. In my time doing improv, I have met some of the best people I know, people who are making challenging and interesting work all the time. The theatres have given me a space to hone my voice and allowed me to come out of my shell.

At the same time that this article about improv came out, I was reading in the Times about the servers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner decided to unionize. The parallels were uncanny. The restaurant’s owner said

“This is a little family business that’s been in Times Square since 1995, when Times Square was still a toilet, and we give these guys the opportunity to ply their craft in the middle of the theater district to sing,” he said. “I welcome and have always welcomed the opportunity to make their life a little bit better, because it’s a brand, and at the end of the day, you’re only as successful as your employees.”

Despite this, new management began cutting hours and firing employees for small offences, despite their singing waitstaff being the real product at the restaurant. I don’t think improvisors need to unionize, but when people at the top say that they are so generous to let their employees work for them, I get nervous. No one wants to be taken advantage of. We have to remember that at the end of the day, for better or for worse, theatre is a business. With all the baggage that comes with it.

I don’t have the answer to whether or not establishment theatres need to pay, I don’t see the books. But I think everyone, from the UCB 4 to the interns, from the Pit to the Annoyance, needs to be less complacent with the low premium put on our own work.