Why Is Diversity Still Such an Issue at Places Like UCB?

ucbtheatreIt’s by no means a new topic in the comedy community, but after the 90% male, 100% white writing staff of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was revealed earlier this month, the longstanding issue of diversity both behind and in front of the camera has been a big topic in recent weeks. The Late Show certainly isn’t the only show to start a new comedy diversity debate — see the frustration SNL sparked two years ago — but yesterday, one New York-based comedian called out the diversity issue of what many consider the preeminent talent pool for the most coveted TV comedy jobs today: the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Yesterday, UCB performer Rita Chinyere — who has taken classes at the New York location since 2011 — wrote a piece over on Medium called “Why I’m Quitting UCB, And Its Problem With Diversity,” and it’s a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the frustration many POC UCB students feel taking classes and why UCB’s diversity initiative doesn’t work from an insider’s perspective. Here’s an excerpt from Chinyere’s piece where she polls some anonymous UCB students and teachers about how the theater deals with — or doesn’t deal with — its diversity problem:

How do you feel as a POC at UCB?
“Don’t get me started.”
“For me there is a lot of joy. I get to bring in a very unique take to most scenes, because the majority of improvisers don’t have common experiences.”
“Underrepresented.”
“Read my tumblr.”
“White people are killing it in the UCB system right now.”
“What’s a n*gga gotta do to get on? (ha -i’m playing, but not really)”
“My comedy is not on game.”
“As a person of color, I don’t feel comfortable talking about racial disparity at UCB and that’s sad.”
“Marginalized.”
“Like no one gives a fuck about my experience or how I feel.”
“I can’t play black but I walk into a scene and i’m made black, does that make sense?”

Does UCB have a diversity problem?
“It does have a diversity problem, but not because the UCB’s system has created one.”
“UCB is a product of a society with a diversity problem.”
“Yeah. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more outrage about it.”
“UCB’s efforts at diversity are so transparently bad.”
“Yeah. It shouldn’t be this hard to put POC on teams when there are GOOD POC in the system.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.”
“The problem is UCB doesn’t care about recognizing they have a diversity problem. You can’t change until you recognize the need for change.”
“There’s a black president. Diversity was solved on a national level, UCB has no more work to do.”

We reached out to Chinyere to ask what prompted her to write the piece and how the response has been, and here’s what she told us:

First of all, I want to say and emphasize how much I love UCB and the time I’ve spent there. Essentially leaving something I love so dearly was really the only way I could think to use my voice to affect any sort of change there. I wrote it the morning I woke up and learned no people of color were put on teams despite nine openings. Is the theater and school working on initiatives for diversity? Yes. Can they be doing more? That’s a resounding yes. In the past 24 hours, I have heard from people up and down the UCB flagpole — from deep within the community to those on the outskirts of it. From successful people who left the UCB system years ago to those rising through the ranks now. From teachers and students. It has been truly moving to see people respond — positively and negatively, though the response has been overwhelmingly positive. My only hope is that UCB listens. People are talking, loudly.

So what concrete steps can UCB and other improv theaters take to fix this problem with real results? As Chinyere says, the best first step is to start talking about it, so we reached out to UCB cofounder Matt Besser and asked for his take. Here’s what he had to say:

We agree that there is a problem in the sketch and improv community where in general there should be more interest from a more diverse sampling of our society. That is precisely why we do have diversity scholarships and why we’ve put together a diversity program to try to figure this problem out. I think it’s pretty awesome we just gave out 300 diversity scholarships this last year in NYC alone. And best of all, nothing we are doing is written in stone so we have an open door at the UCB, where a new Director of Student Affairs is here to hear any suggestions or issues.

As for how UCB is working to improve, Besser says:

Each summer we offer sections of teen courses. Without any government or other outside funding or incentive we provide these for free to NYC public school students who receive free or discounted lunches.

We have a long relationship with the NYC Department of Education which has been expanding every year. We currently send teachers to all 5 boroughs to work with High School students. The program includes a mini-improv festival at our NYC venues.

Through Marissa Tunis and Erik Tanouye, we work with the All-Stars Project, a group that helps prepare inner-city youth for lives in the professional world. We offered an Improv 101 course to students they selected to participate in the program. In addition, we continue to offer a number of improv workshops for their students throughout the year, with the cooperation of teachers from the UCB Training Center.

Read Chinyere’s full post here.

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