What's your take: Comedians working for free at iO

There has been debate brewing the past few weeks among comedy performers in New York concerning the issue of pay. Often, stand-up comedians with a certain level of experience can score paying gigs at New York clubs. Recently, more and more stand-ups have started performing at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a sketch and improv house where no one is paid to perform. Hence, the recent tensions.

A similar setup exists in Chicago. In fact, the founders of UCB based their theater on iO Theater on the North Side — as both a school and a venue where young performers can experiment and hone their chops. And locally, this doesn’t just happen in the world of comedy. Nearly all Chicago storefront theaters are unable to pay their actors, despite the considerable time, emotional and intellectual investment required on the part of the performers, most of whom work day jobs. The money just isn’t there.

UCB was founded by Chicago improvisers Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, who performed together locally in the '90s as The Upright Citizens Brigade. In 1998, they moved to New York for their Comedy Central TV series that ran for three years.

But prior to that, in Chicago, UCB was based out of iO (known then as ImprovOlympic), which was founded in 1981 by improv master Del Close (who died in 1999) and Charna Halpern, who runs iO to this day. It is a landmark stop in the comedy scene and a reliable source for audiences seeking out sketch and improv.

The shows you’ll see — which include performers at various skill levels, depending on their experience — are distinct from the polish of the heavily rehearsed-and-scripted revues that Second City produces on the mainstage and the e.t.c. stage (both of which are Equity shows that do pay their performers). In my column this week, I talk to three recent Second City mainstage alumni who landed writing jobs on “Cougar Town” and “Happy Endings” — but it bears noting that Second City was not their only stage; all three did shows at iO (and continue to perform at iO West in LA).

What iO offers is an entry point and a training ground. I asked Halpern about the UCB pay debate, because frankly it looks exploitative — not to mention demoralizing — to not pay people for their time and talent. “When Besser was here I used to fight with him about this: 'You should pay people, you should give free drinks.' They think you’re rich when you own a theater. And when I spoke to him about this recently he was like, ‘Now I understand.’ It’s funny, now he gets it.”

I was curious about the specifics and asked Halpern to detail the financial breakdown of running the theater. “I have 32 teams (of performers) with nine people on them,” she said, “and you can’t have 300 people on your payroll.” Who is on her payroll? The administrative staff, box office staff, house managers, bartenders and those who teach classes. Presumably these employees would not show up (and rightly so) if they were expected to work for free. The same clearly does not hold true for performers. “It takes $80,000 to $100,000 a month to keep the theater open. The bar covers my payroll, which includes huge costs for workman’s comp; the school covers my bills.”

Based out of an old building, there is also the cost of frequent repairs. Rent is $26,000 a month. After all is said and done, there’s not much left over, she said.

“What people don’t understand is, there would be a lot less people on stage if I paid every performer,” Halpern said. “Right now, five teams are at a point where they are good enough to be paid. But to afford that, I would have to get rid of a couple hundred people and that would break my heart. Every time you’re on stage, you learn, but at this point they’re not good enough. They’re not ready. But they have the potential. I remember Jeff Garlin used to come to me and beg me for a 10 minutes to open a show so that he could get good enough to go to Zanies. And his material was crap. And we would heckle him and then he would respond to that, and that’s how he got good. Everyone struggles to get good.” (Garlin aside, iO rarely features stand-up.)

Some performers, though, do get paid. They are the proven seat-fillers. Long-running shows from TJ & Dave, The Deltones, Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare all get a cut. Improvised Shakespeare, Halpern told me, gets 50 percent of the door (roughly $500 a show) split amongst the group. These long-running shows help finance more sparsely attended fare and allow Halpern to keep tickets in the $5-$16 range. “Plus, there’s no drink minimum” for audiences, she said.

There are issues with the overall iO setup that are the similar to those that arise with unpaid internships. And I’ve long heard from those unhappy with the initial pay-to-play requirement — in which performers must first shell out money for classes before they can qualify for a slot on stage. Performing at iO should not be closed off to all but those who can afford it; that doesn’t make smart artistic sense.

Here’s what Halpern had to say about these grievances: “They do think we’re just trying to get money out of them. But the majority of people who are starting out, even if they performed in college, aren’t really good yet. It’s a skill and education is important. I need quality control and the truth is, you have to be trained. It’s an art form and you have to be good at it before I put you on stage.”

So what are the intangible benefits? Aside from stage time and artistic partnerships formed: “I help them get agents. I help them get corporate and teaching jobs that do pay. You don’t get rich, but you do get an opportunity to get really good.” In addition to his annual visits to Second City, Lorne Michaels makes a regular pilgrimage to iO to see a showcase of hopefuls selected by Halpern.

Among “SNL’s” new featured players, Cecily Strong has gained the highest profile — enough to earn a guest spot on Jimmy Fallen earlier this week. Where did Michaels see her perform when she was hired? Last summer at the iO showcase.

We want to hear from you: What do you think would be a fair and workable model? Audiences: Would you be willing to pay higher ticket prices? Performers: Would you be willing to accept fewer opportunities if it meant that, when you did get on stage, you would be paid?

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