A comic improviser can handle just about any change, as long as it happens onstage. But lately, the ImprovBoston community is finding change much harder to handle offstage. Miscommunication and a struggle over intellectual property have prompted improv, sketch, and stand-up performers to choose sides as the 30-year-old Cambridge comedy theater’s leadership has become embroiled in a flame war with comedians and a battle over the popular Geek Week festival.
Change has been the norm at ImprovBoston for the past five years, ever since the theater moved from its cozy hideaway in Inman Square to a bigger, higher-profile storefront space in Central Square in 2008. Zach Ward took over as managing director in June 2011, and Mike Descoteaux came on as artistic director last January, replacing Will Luera, the face of ImprovBoston for more than a decade.
Now there is a sense among some that not all of the change has been good, and Ward has had to battle a perception among some regular performers that the soul of the place is not what it used to be.
“There was something that was going on before that was very magical and running on its own that seems to have gummed up,” says veteran improviser Harry Gordon, who came to ImprovBoston from Improv Asylum in 2007 and recalls quickly feeling a sense of family. Ward has tightened up the organization, Gordon says, but something hard to define yet important was lost in the process. “I think the sense of ownership that a lot of people have had at the theater has really dissipated,” he says. “And I see people doing things in a way that was relatively inconceivable not that long ago: auditioning for other theaters and opening their own spaces.”
During his short tenure, Ward has overseen an increase in both audiences and the number of people taking the theater’s comedy classes, now totaling 1,700 students a year. But he acknowledges that change has been tough.
“Coming in, there was a lot to wrap your head around,” says Ward, who’s had to navigate what he calls “the cult of personality that exists deep within a comedy theater” even as he’s sought to “get buy-in from the majority” and “make it so that everyone can realize the ultimate goal of the theater.” Mainly, that means providing performers with a place to play and to develop their work, and giving audiences an affordable place to see live comedy.
ImprovBoston first got into stand-up a decade ago, but, as its name suggests, that’s never been what it’s known for. Its problems with the stand-up community — a different crowd from the core set of improvisers who perform on many of its shows — began last August. At a Sunday night stand-up showcase called “The People’s Show,” the comics were told that the theater would be videotaping sets that night. Some of them objected. Ward, who was teaching a class in the building, stepped in and briefly tried to explain the underlying intention, mentioning what the stand-up site RooftopComedy.com does: films short sets by local and national comics and puts them online. This did not smooth things over. Heated discussions ensued on social media, such as the private Boston Comedians group on Facebook.
Raj Sivaraman, then a sketch instructor at ImprovBoston’s comedy school, was one of the stand-up comedians on the show. He was confused by the theater’s intentions and posted a question to the wider community on the Facebook group — somewhat lightheartedly, in his characterization. “It’s like, ‘Controversy of the Week: ImprovBoston’s now taping stand-up sets, what do you guys think about it?’ ” he says. “I just sort of opened it up. And certain people just sort of got very upset about it and started venting their frustrations towards
Ward says the taping was meant to be a test of the theater’s recording equipment for a future project, and the intention was never to use that evening’s material. “The issue was the communication of that to the comics that night,” says Ward. “An intern delivered the message because we believed we should notify people if we were recording them. The message that the intern at the time delivered was not clear.” Ward’s attempt to address the problem that evening “was not effective,” he says, and what followed was “a really large blow-up and disagreement over facts and communication of that.”
Sivaraman eventually called for a boycott of the theater on the Kvetch Board, the public forum on the website of the Comedy Studio, the club in Harvard Square. That boycott never fully materialized, but it was enough to keep the controversy going, and to cause more problems between Sivaraman and ImprovBoston. Sivaraman says that he was banned from the theater and not allowed to return to teach. Ward and Blair Howell, chair of ImprovBoston’s board of directors, say that Sivaraman’s move to New York had more to do with his dismissal. But Sivaraman counters that the theater didn’t know of his move before deciding not to ask him back.
“I would say if someone is very actively flaming ImprovBoston online,” says Howell, “common sense says that it’s pretty inappropriate. There’s nobody that’s been banned for life here, but at a certain point we need to have a chat, a discussion, openly about what’s happened and then come to a resolution.”
Local comic Mehran had long been suspicious of ImprovBoston’s connections to the stand-up community. He has been the most active voice among comedians opposing ImprovBoston. “Everything from their side was so corporate,” he says. “I worked at Harvard for 4½ years. I know a corporate missive when I read one. With dodgy language, and they’re just constantly avoiding responsibility.” That he wasn’t a part of the show that was to be taped last August has not stopped him from criticizing the theater’s handling of its troubles. “It was so offensive to me, their response,” Mehran says.
ImprovBoston has been dealing with another public relations problem, too: an intellectual property dispute over the Geek Week festival between the theater and Kevin Harrington, who produced Geek Week at ImprovBoston for six years, until 2012. After a rocky festival in spring 2012, during which Harrington sparred with management over the budget and other details, he took his connections and the Geek Week name and, last September, started his own comedy night at the Comicazi comic book shop in Davis Square. He also locked ImprovBoston management out of Geek Week social media and the Geek Week website, which he had set up and paid for himself.
ImprovBoston management says that Don Schuerman, its director of programming at the time of the first Geek Week, came up with the name and that he and Luera created the festival before asking Harrington to produce it. Harrington contends that he thought of the name while he, Luera, and Schuerman were discussing the possibility of bringing back his geek-oriented improv show, “In the Garage,” with other geek-oriented shows for a theme night. The argument comes down to who owns the name now.
“The person who came up with the name is Don Schuerman,” says Luera. “He came up with the name Geek Week. That was his job as director of programming, and in fact, many of the things named in our schedule came right from Don Schuerman’s mouth and brain. And as artistic director, I approved it.”
“They didn’t create the name and they didn’t create the festival,” Harrington responds. “We may have talked about it. But they did not create the name.”
In October, after Harrington’s second show at Comicazi under the Geek Week banner, he received a cease-and-desist letter from ImprovBoston, which had trademarked the name “Geek Week.” A second cease-and-desist letter went out in November, addressed to Comicazi. Ward explains: “ImprovBoston made the decision that, in the interest of maintaining this brand, which we believe we own the rights to, we need to put this out there to at least have an active defense of that brand.”
Harrington responded with his own cease-and-desist letter in November. It has been a standoff since then, with hurt feelings on both sides. ImprovBoston canceled its own Geek Week festival this year, citing stage renovations that are part of ongoing improvements to the facility. Harrington has renamed the monthly show at Comicazi “Geek Comedy Night,” but he plans to continue to use the phrase “Geek Week Comedy.” Meanwhile, ImprovBoston is developing an intellectual property policy meant to protect what the theater wants to own, such as regular, repeated shows, and what artists and creators own. The intent is to avoid problems like this one.
Deana Criess, director of ImprovBoston’s anti-bullying program, is also a member of the theater’s main stage and touring companies. She has been with ImprovBoston since its Inman Square days and says the theater is headed in the right direction, largely because of Ward’s efforts. “He had to take a clubhouse mentality and turn it into a positive, professional theater company,” she says. “That’s no easy feat. He did it with the help of community members who believe in our theater and our mission, community members who believe in his leadership.”
And ImprovBoston continues to work on its relationship with the comedy community. It holds regular “town halls” to discuss issues with performers, and it addressed the stand-up and Geek Week issues at its April meeting. Al Park, a relative newcomer to stand-up, attended that town hall and asked Ward and Descoteaux about both issues. Park says he believes there is a good-faith effort on behalf of ImprovBoston to resolve the problems, but that there is a disconnect between the theater and stand-up comedians. The theater “cannot be an island,” he says. “They need to interact more regularly with the stand-up community. That includes the director; that includes the other people who teach stand-up there. If
ImprovBoston wants to be taken seriously as a stand-up venue, they should be more involved in the overall stand-up community.”
Improv veteran Harry Gordon is rooting for resolution, but he sounds uncertain of the odds. “What we do is hard enough,” he says. “I think there’s a road ahead of us in terms of the theater ImprovBoston and in terms of the stand-up community and so forth. Which means that we have to kind of work this out. I don’t know as if I see that that’s on the table for a lot of people.”