In another cultural casualty of the pandemic, the Upright Citizens Brigade is planning to close its two Manhattan locations, leaving the storied improv and sketch comedy hub without its own permanent space in the city.
In an email sent to students and performers on Tuesday, founders of the 30-year-old group said that they had made the “heart wrenching” decision to close its theater in Hell’s Kitchen and the training center on Eighth Avenue. U.C.B., which has long been a launching pad for up-and-coming comedians, has been showing signs of financial strain for over a year, having laid off staff and shut down its East Village venue.
The founders — Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh — said in the message that they had already been struggling to pay New York’s high rents before the coronavirus hit, but the uncertainty created by the lockdown meant that they could no longer afford their leases. The message did not mention any threat to U.C.B.’s two locations in Los Angeles, but noted that even shutting down the two Manhattan locations would not be a “cure-all for the financial health of the organization.”
The severe impact of the pandemic on the group’s future was already clear last month, when the all of the theaters and training centers went dark and the organization laid of broad swaths of staff members in New York and Los Angeles, including theater managers, bartenders and security staff. Online campaigns sought to raise money for laid-off employees on both coasts. (U.C.B. performers typically do not get paid, which is a sore point for many in comedy.)
The organization said it would not be shutting down activities in New York entirely. The plan is to continue to host shows at SubCulture, a 130-seat venue on Bleecker Street, and to rent new space for classes as they happen.
The founders compared the next chapter in U.C.B.’s life to its beginnings in the 1990s, when it started as a scrappy troupe without an official home. The group grew into a comedy institution that propelled the careers of A-list comedians like Ellie Kemper, Aziz Ansari and Kate McKinnon.
“Paring down to the size we were when we started is our best chance for survival,” the founders’ email said.
The coronavirus has been devastating to arts institutions across the country, prompting mass cancellations, furloughs and questions as to whether some organizations will ultimately survive.
The future of U.C.B. looked brighter in 2017, when it left the Chelsea theater it had occupied since 2003 for the Hell’s Kitchen location on 42nd Street, closer to the heart of the theater district.
But in 2018, the theater laid off several staff members, including much of its sales and marketing teams. Then, in 2019, the organization said it would be shuttering its East Village theater where it had been for about eight years, attributing the closure to the cost of rent, property taxes and other expenses.
On social media, comedians including Chris Gethard, who studied and performed at U.C.B., mourned the loss of the facilities, while noting some dissatisfaction with more recent decision making by management.
Like many cultural institutions, U.C.B. is adapting to stay viable without brick-and-mortar venues. It has already moved its improv and sketch classes online, typically charging about $400 for eight 3-hour sessions.