What It’s Like to Be an Artistic Director at a Comedy Theater
Comedy is an industry, and for every performer on stage, there are hundreds of people working behind-the-scenes. These creative and business jobs, which exist in all disciplines and levels of comedy, collectively make up the comedy scene. In this column, we’re looking a comedy jobs that are less visible than that of a performer, and talking to the people who do those jobs about what they do, how they got there, and how that job has affected their perspective on comedy.
All around the country, comedy theaters are producing the next wave of comedians. Often small organizations that play host to hundreds of shows every year, these improv and sketch theaters are guided by artistic directors, who are responsible for marrying the management demands of a theater with the creative needs of the community.
Most artistic directors are performers themselves, coming up through the training system at their theaters. Already deeply involved in the community, they took on the AD role having excelled within that theater’s system as a performer, and sometimes in other ways, as well. Keith Huang, artistic director at The Peoples Improv Theater (The PIT) in New York, began regularly photographing shows around the theater while a performer, making him an integral part of the scene. At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, improviser Alex Berg’s notes on the theater’s improv manual made him stand out. “I have a science background, not a theater background, so I look at everything very analytically,” he said. “So when they gave me a copy of the manuscript to check out, I took as an opportunity to just sort of vomit my nerdery all over a Word document, in a way. I guess that made a positive impression.”
Much of the day-to-day work of an artistic director is consumed with the administrative tasks of a theater; putting together a schedule, booking shows and performers, checking in with team leaders, arranging auditions, reviewing submissions, and liaising with performers, industry, and outsiders. Megan Gray, artist director at Magnet Theater in NYC, likens it to “being the captain of a ship,” ensuring quality control in all the moving parts of the theater. An artistic director must also keep a big picture on the theater’s vision, says Huang. “Just sort of having a vision, having a goal as to how you want it to go or what your ultimate goal is while you’re overseeing everything, which is a little tricky because it kind of changes day by day as well.”
And while they manage the theater, most continue to perform as well. Mike Descoteaux, who recently became the first full time artistic director at ImprovBoston, sees continuing to be involved with the creative side as integral to the job. “For me, being involved onstage, being involved in the trenches along with other performers or the other writers [is important] so that you know exactly what it is they’re going through, so you are not just sympathetic, you are truly just understanding of what the artist’s process is.”
But being involved as both performer and manager can change an AD’s relationship with other performers. “You have to be a good example,” explains Gray. “You’re giving people notes and directions all the time, and so you have to practice what you preach.” While well aware that the position may affect others’ perception of them, ADs are conscious of not letting the role affect their comedy. “I certainly try not to carry any kind of ego with me about anything on stage,” says Berg, “let alone an ego about being the guy who’s the best at emailing at UCB.”
And the management responsibilities for artistic directors can change their outlooks on the creative side. “With so many people here and so many things going on, everybody feels like their personal thing is the most important thing going on, so it’s hard for people to see the big picture,” says James Grace, artistic director at iO West in LA. “And so it’s hard to give the attention to everything that everybody wants because there’s just so much you can do.”
Across the board, artistic directors described their favorite part of the job as cultivating new shows on their stage. Saying yes to performers, developing their ideas, and seeing shows become successful is the best part of a job that requires “saying no a lot more than saying yes,” according to UCB NY artistic director Nate Dern. “We’re not meant to be a final landing zone for anyone. Our system requires that turnover happens, and so we have to make cuts. Not every show can run forever, and you don’t get to be on a house team forever. So that’s the hardest part of the job, is when I have to say no to people, either because we don’t have room for their show or they don’t get to be on a team.”
“How do you be the cool principal?” says Huang. “That’s kind of what you start getting in your head about.” Holding fellow performers, especially friends and co-workers, to tough standards is a challenge they all face. “Even if I like somebody and they’re not able to perform to the level that I need them to, I can’t put them up,” says Grace. “It doesn’t help them, so it’s not doing them a favor, and it certainly doesn’t help the theater.”
Many of the big decisions rest on the shoulders of the artistic director. “We’re the ones under the microscope,” says Dern of his responsibility at the most prominent improv theater in New York. “But I think that’s a good thing, though. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Any decision I make, I have to be able to defend it because I know that people will be critiquing it, both friends and outsiders. I’ve got to make sure that I’m damn sure about any choices I make.”
Elise Czajkowski is an Associate Editor at Splitsider.
Photo courtesy of UCB.