This post has been updated to reflect additional information from UCB.
Today the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center, not to be confused with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, announced the creation of the UCB Academy, a “two-year conservatory program” where UCB students can pursue “a more committed study of improvisation” than the school currently offers, apparently. To gain admission into the Academy, students must complete the Training Center’s core curriculum—four classes, Improv 101 through 401—with grades of “Pass” or “Superior,” then audition for a panel of UCB faculty. Once enrolled, students can access a variety of classes “aimed at difficult concepts,” though the Academy will have no set curriculum, unlike the Second City Conservatory—a five-level, eight-weeks-per-level program that dedicated improvisors can audition for after they’ve completed the Chicago theater’s core training program (or equivalents at other theaters); only students in and graduates of this program are eligible to audition for Second City house teams. Like the Second City program, however, admission to the UCB Academy is free, with each class priced individually.
The announcement also includes changes to UCB’s Advanced Study program. Historically, entrance into Advanced Study classes required the approval of one’s 401 instructor. Students who did not receive that permission could retake 401 and apply again, and they could do this indefinitely. Associate Academic Director Kevin Hines, in a post announcing the Academy, described this as a “single-gatekeeper system” governed by the individual biases of each instructor. By requiring students to audition before several instructors, the Academy aims for a less subjective admissions process. Meanwhile UCB is taking subjectivity out of the equation in the advanced study program, which will now be open to all students who pass 401 with a grade of “Conditional Pass,” “Pass” or “Superior.” Whereas students can only take Academy courses for two years—ostensibly to prevent students from taking classes beyond the usefulness of taking classes—they can still take Advanced Study courses until the end of time, though New York students are restricted to four per year. There is also a “lifetime limit” of four auditions to the Academy, and performers who have already been accepted onto UCB house teams gain automatic admission.
How the Academy will affect UCB’s house team system remains unclear. Students who wish to audition for Harold and Lloyd teams must complete the core curriculum and gain approval for study in an advanced class. In theory, these prerequisites select for the best of the best improvisors. (In practice, it also selects for those with thousands of dollars to spare.) UCB has not announced whether Academy courses will become a prerequisite for house team auditions: “The artistic directors may choose to utilize this new program when deciding requirements for auditioning or they may not,” Hines wrote. “The UCB Training Center’s focus is creating the best program we can in comedy training.”
The generous read of this announcement is that UCB has removed one barrier to entry into its Advanced Study classes, which has the added effect of making every 401 grad eligible to audition for UCB house teams. I’m not inclined to be so generous. I see UCB lifting the barriers to one program at the same time it creates a near-identical replica of that program with near-identical barriers. There are good reasons for any academic program to restrict its admissions only to the most talented applicants—I don’t mean to downplay that at all. I simply mean that the first change seems much less meaningful in light of the second. I’m also skeptical that the switch from permission-based to audition-based admission will meaningfully increase accessibility, given that the financial barriers to entry at every level of study remain in place. And given how the announcement hedges around the question of house team auditions, punting it to another party at a later date, it seems more than plausible that Academy enrollment will eventually become a prerequisite. Unless the theater’s artistic staff decides that auditioners needn’t meet the same standards of academic achievement they do today—admission into an exclusive course of study—why wouldn’t it?
So here’s another way of looking at the announcement. By opening up Advanced Study classes, UCB has expanded that program’s potential customer base to every 401 grad rather than a select few. And by creating an admission-based system of, shall we say, advanced-er classes, including certain ones in the Advanced Study program which will “move into” the Academy, UCB keeps the preexisting merit-based structure in place. As it’s always been, only the most talented applicants will get to take the most advanced classes. Again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t—though I maintain that the price of admission limits the sort of talent that makes it to the top. I’m only saying that it’s obvious what this is about: money. Which makes it all the more important to question why UCB’s money never trickles down to UCB’s performers.
Update, 1/31/18: Folks: I was wrong. Hines has clarified that the UCB Academy will not, in fact, add new revenue for the training center, as the total classes offered will remain the same: The school is limited by rooms and time slots, he noted, rather than potential programming, and every Academy class will replace a lower-level class. But unless the Training Center grows its offerings in the future, as it has in the past, the Academy will have no effect on its net revenue. By allowing more students to take Advanced Study classes indefinitely, however, these changes are poised to expand the school’s lifetime customer base: Instead of retaking 401 until they give up, students will have access to a variety of more focused coursework.
The original headline of this post was “Area Business Opens New Revenue Stream.”
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.