The Benefits of UCB: a Q&A01.03.20
An actor recently asked me a bunch of questions re: UCB so I figured I would do a Q&A with myself in case it was helpful to other actors.
Q. Why are you relevant to talk about UCB?
A. I did the full UCB improv currriculum, was passed into Advanced Study, and auditioned and got into Academy. I've also done the full sketch program, was passed into Advanced Study, and also did some one-off stuff like their Character 101 class. I have *not* been on a UCB house team, I auditioned once for Mess Hall (was invited to their invite-only cycle) -- did not get in, and since decided I didn't really want to be on a Harold/Mess Hall team and have since stopped auditioning for house teams. I continue to practice improv in a weekly improv practice group coached by Brandon Gardner (long-time UCB teacher + performer).
I also did a couple of months of something called "Improv Bootcamp" which is taught by UCB performers + teachers at The Clubhouse -- basically every weekday, 2 hours/day (not strict on attendance, so come when you can). I also previously did the full improv program at The PIT in New York (pretty similar in style to UCB).
Q. Ok, let's get to it. I'm an actor. I don't care about improv. Can taking class at UCB help my career?
A. Maybe. There's obviously two sides to this -- how UCB / improv can help you as an actor (from comedy, improv, looseness, etc.) and from the perspective of your career. If you take, say, a UCB 101 class, I'm pretty doubtful that will help you get called into an office. It's possible, but I'm doubtful. So if your resume just lists UCB 101 (or generally, UCB and then a couple instructors) -- I'm doubtful that means anything, but a CD would have a better opinion on that. (This is, btw, for actors who don't already have a relationship with that office). However, if you do the full curriculum -- I think that could be useful. I don't know for sure, but if your resume shows you've done the full improv program -- might a CD or associate give you a shot at a co-star role even if you don't have any credits? Sure, I could see that. Personally, I think CDs love seeing new talent and want to give folks a shot -- and that's a good reason to give them. But a single class? Probably not enough.
Q. If I make a house team (Mess Hall or Harold) -- that means I'm moments away from being a famous TV star, right? Or at least a working TV actor?
A. Maybe. If you listen to podcasts with UCB people (e.g. UCB Long-Form Conversations or "The Need to Fail" from Don Fanelli) -- there are certainly many UCB performers who either have become well known or are at least working actors. Many. My sense though, is this isn't the typical path. You definitely hear quite a number of folks who eventually worked in the industry in some capacity -- some as an actor, many as a writer (which makes total sense to me, Johnny Meeks -- who is the educational director at UCB -- has described UCB's improv style as "improvised sketch" which I think is really accurate -- you're basically writing sketch on your feet, which I think is really excellent training if you want to be a comedy writer), etc. A non-trivial number of people, many extremely accomplished and decorated improvisers, have few acting credits. It's a bit staggering and simply no guarantee. They're also really good. So the variance is large.
A few examples which you can find for yourself:
a. so on the positive end, I think is Betsy Sodaro. I *believe* she said that she got on a Harold team, her first Harold show, Ian Roberts saw her -- was working on a pilot, cast her in that pilot, and from there got her manager at 3 Arts and she's clearly built out quite a list of credits since then. From all the podcasts I've listened to, I find this to be super rare. It's obviously happened, but not a common story I hear.
b. Hillary Anne-Matthews has talked on a podcast about getting on a Harold team and almost immediately getting an email from a commercial agent saying something to the effect of, "Congratulations all new Harold team members! If you're looking for commercial representation, please contact me." She thought she was well on her way (and that this is what happens when you're on a Harold team) -- she contacted the person and crickets. She then also plays in an all-female basketball league and someone on another team is a powerful manager, saw her, thought she could do something with her, signed her, and she was on her way.
c. Marcy Jarreau (on "The Need to Fail" I believe) talks about being out here for 10 years and getting 2 commercials (non-union commercials she stressed.) Marcy was on Search History, I believe -- which is a weekend team (Harold teams that "graduate" are moved to a "weekend team" status -- basically they have a permanent slot -- so it's above a Harold team). So she's really good! 2 non-union commercials in 10 years! But, after quite a bit of a journey, she now writes for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If you actually look at the writing staffs of a lot of comedy shows -- there are a *ton* of UCB people around, again, I think it goes back to the training; some of it is directly writing / sketch related, and I think some of it is simply UCB's style being really conducive to comedy writing.
d. Brandon Gardner (my regular improv coach) spends quite a bit of time talking about his journey on "The Need to Fail" in two episodes (and on Long-Form Conversations). I think a case could be made the Brandon is one of the most decorated UCB performers / teachers around -- not only has he been on Harold teams, a weekend team I think, and but also has performed on ASSSSCAT. But I don't think Brandon has a TV credit. This is not crazy unusual.
I write all this less to emphasize the variance, but moreso to emphasize that the value of UCB really is in the training and sometimes / often -- there are career benefits to it too. But I think the career benefits simply go hand in hand with the training -- you get better at improv which helps your acting (or writing) in a variety of ways, so you're more able to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. I think it's less that you're already a good actor, you're able to add something to your resume, you get in the room, you get cast, and then you can forget about the improv stuff.
Q. How hard is it to make a Mess Hall or Harold team?
I'm not the best person to answer this since I haven't done either myself -- but I think it's fair to say: hard. Not impossible, but hard. Again, going back to these podcasts, pretty common among guests -- and keep in mind, these are people who are at a Harold team level (often for many years) and beyond (weekend team, ASSSSCAT, etc.) They frequently talk about how many years it took them to make it onto a Harold team (and then sometimes got cut before getting back on again later).
Another example I'll give is a friend of mine, who when I met him, had never made a house team. We were doing bootcamp together (that every day improv thing) -- he had been doing it for years. YEARS! This is also not unusual. In the community, you'll run into people who are doing improv maybe not every day -- but certainly multiple times per week, performing at The Clubhouse, on multiple indie teams, etc. I think Laci Mosley had said on a podcast that in the leadup to her making a Harold team, that she was in improv class or otherwise doing improv 15 hours / week. That's a lot. I bring that up to say that just because you passed through 401 and are eligible to audition to be on a Harold team -- and who knows, you might make it -- there are just a *lot* of people who are really passionate and spend an enormous amount of time dedicated to improv. That's who you're competing against. Not saying that you can't do it or that your special comedic sauce isn't funnier than theirs even with all the extra time they spend -- but just be aware that there are not only those people out there, there are a lot of them out there.
On a similar, data-type note -- I think something like 800+ people audition for Harold teams (maybe it's more now). There are 8 teams, 8 people per team -- so 64 slots. However, the majority of those slots are spoken for (I estimate maybe 4-5 teams come back virtually intact), there might be some turnover in the remaining teams and maybe 1-2 teams are completely broken up. What I'm saying is that there are probably (my guess) 20 slots or so that are up for grabs. (though it's easier to get on Mess Hall as I think it's 6 teams, 8 per team -- and all new teams each cycle) So 800 people who, at minimum, have done the full program, for 20 or so slots (maybe 70 if you include Mess Hall) -- many of whom have been doing the improv indie circuit for years. The odds are just long. Again, not to dissuade on any level -- but it's just a far better place to work from if you're doing it because you love it (or even that you like it enough and want some ancillary benefits) -- rather than primarily doing it because you think it can help your career.
Q. Putting aside career, how can improv / UCB help me with auditioning or the craft of acting / how has it helped you?
Personally, I think the answer is immensely. Now, I should note -- I think its impact was pretty muted for a while. I first got into improv b/c I had asked my first acting teacher what I should take next and he suggested taking an improv class -- basically to loosen me up. That's when I took the full program at The PIT. It was a while later before I got back to UCB. I think I took 101 + 201, took a bunch of time off, then returned, had to re-take 201 because too much time had passed, and got through the whole curriculum.
I should note that part of the reason I returned and finished the program was that I had a bit of an ego for a while -- I was like, I finished an entire improv program! Why do I need to do another improv program?! I then had an audition for that Showtime show "House of Lies" -- the lines for the role had not yet been written yet -- so casting gave me sides for ANOTHER CHARACTER. Did the first take. Goes fine. Casting is like, let's just do another one -- feel free to improvise, etc. Again, these aren't the actual lines! You would think that I had enough improv training to handle this situation but I basically gave 3 takes that were EXACTLY THE SAME. After some reflection, I was like, "I think I need to do some more improv." Not even for the comedy skill of it necessarily (though that's obviously a huge benefit) -- just to make my mind looser and more receptive.
My feeling is that probably somewhere around 401 (maybe after that a little bit) -- I started to be pretty competent. I wouldn't say good, but I had a degree of proficiency. I would say this was also reflected in some external things too (being invited to a practice group, classmates inviting me to their teams / practice groups, etc.) It took me a while after that (taking Advanced Study classes and a continuous, weekly practice group, occasional drop-in workshops) -- before I feel like I went past competency and I was relaxed and really able to just do comedy within the context of improv, if that makes sense. Before that, there was just so much processing of trying to figure out, where in the scene am I? What still needs to be established? What needs to happen next? It just frankly took years to get past that point. And this is way after I started getting pretty positive feedback. Improv is hard.
So how does it help with auditioning / on-set, etc. Here's where I think the UCB training shows up for me:
--not as concerned with the words; you gain more confidence and facility to not only not be so precious with the words (but hopefully you can be word perfect when you need to be), but also able to navigate things so if you drop a line or the other person drops a line or something weird happens, that you can stay in the moment and continue acting, frankly -- or even generate material in that moment to continue making it make sense
--better in the room; just more at ease in the room, even new rooms (and frankly social situations too) -- because I just have more facility to interact.
--better listening; so much about improv is listening -- it's tricky to get to that stage because you're listening and then have to write in the moment, but obviously you HAVE TO listen when you do improv because otherwise it won't make any sense. So I think this does positively impact your listening as an actor.
--just more open when it comes to whatever preparation you're doing or direction you get in the room, etc. I think a lot of it is the fundamental nature of improv (yes, and -- and all that) -- the openness to direction is probably a consequence to just the nature of how UCB teaches (do a scene, get notes; repeat thousands of times)
--able to write and write in the moment; so this certainly applies to doing alts if you're offered the opportunity to do them / it's a looser set where each take they're basically fine with you doing alts as long as you're in the confines of the script. But again, sometimes you get gold because you're in the moment and someting unexpected happens and now you're able to respond in character rather than freezing up (which I've seen a not infrequent amount of times -- some actors just don't really go with any deviation from what they had planned.)
--doing a lot of comedy helps you with... comedy. Just as a random example -- if you've ever been coached on a piece of comedic material, often the coaching, at least at some point -- is a little technical. Turn here, build here, try this on this line, etc. And you get a lot of great ideas and options. I think one of the things that really helps by just doing a lot of comedy is you can really start to feel comedy -- sometimes there is a left brain element to it (oh he's being unusual, I should play the voice of reason here) and other times, you'll just feel it and have more ideas of what might be funny. Frankly, not just in auditions or with sides, just in every day life. You'll start to see patterns and places to be funny and get a good handle on timing. At least that's how it was for me.
Q. Back to my career. So... will taking classes at UCB help me get into comedy offices?
Maybe. I think it's worth it for anyone to take the full curriculum and get passed into Advanced Study. Even if you don't like it. It's good training, good for your resume -- and I can see scenarios where that actually gets you into offices you've never been in for before. (and like I said earlier, don't take less than this. Less than this is better than nothing, but just make the effort to go through the full curriculum. Thousands of people have done this, you can too!)
Beyond that, the time spent relative to return is so high that I would argue you should actually like doing improv to keep going.
Personally, I think a better use of your time is making sure you have footage / lots of footage / lots of good footage -- for your reps to use / for you to be make available. I for sure have found that to be one of the most successful avenues for getting into an office. As an example, there's a piece of cop footage I have; there's no one famous in it and it's not from anything you've heard of. It's probably the most successful piece of footage that I have -- my reps have used that to get me into multiple offices (multiple offices that have never seen me before too) -- basically, there's a breakdown for a cop (preferably an Asian cop, but sometimes an open ethnicity cop) -- they write in, here's my client as a cop! (more than that, but you get the idea) It's not some generic "you should see this actor" or "here's what they've done lately" -- it's "you're looking for a cop, here's my client as a cop."
You're trying to get into an office, any reasonable way you can -- and then you can build a relationship with them based on the quality of your work and the progression of your career. Having an extra line on your resume is one way to do that, but another way which I've found quite effective is to get footage.
Obviously booking stuff is a great way (though hard, especially if you're at an earlier stage), making your own content is a great way to go (but also hard, I've done it myself) -- but there are lots of services out there that do one-off scenes. It costs some money, but if you do your homework on them -- you'll often find ones that create high quality footage, solidly written scenes; basically stuff you can use for your reel or a one-off clip. Brandon (who I mentioned earlier) even did a series of improvised shorts -- all filmed -- and one of the actors in them told her that her agents liked the footage so much that they primarily use that when they pitch her now. I say that less to pitch any one route specifically, but moreso that this is a pathway I find to be very effective and isn't years in the making.