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ImprovBoston Begins Temporary Shutdown Through 2020

A scene from the 2016 ImprovBoston show, "WIPR: Improvised Public Radio." (Courtesy ImprovBoston)
A scene from the 2016 ImprovBoston show, "WIPR: Improvised Public Radio." (Courtesy ImprovBoston)

Mike Carr, Kelly MacFarland and Corey O’Rourke lost their jobs on Friday, June 26. That’s an all-too-common fate during the pandemic, but their story is different from most. They didn’t get laid off. Rather, they’ve furloughed themselves to save the theater they work for: ImprovBoston.

The Cambridge comedy hub has a 35-year tenure in Central Square. Carr serves as artistic director, MacFarland as creative director and O’Rourke directs the Comedy School. They’ve decided, collectively, to pause operations through the end of 2020. That means no more improv, standup shows, or comedy classes — online or in person — for the rest of the year.

This wasn’t always the plan. ImprovBoston performers have been putting on shows online since the first days of quarantine. They’ve tried performing live over the internet, but the essential qualities of improv are particularly tricky to digitize. “What makes improv marketable, enjoyable, and funny in person is the unexpected nature of the piece of theater, combined with the close intimacy between performers and the audience,” O’Rourke says. “Once you remove that intimacy with the audience, you’re left with just you, trying to have a weird imagination. You don’t know what the audience is enjoying, so you don’t know what to keep giving them.”

MacFarland agrees. “It’s like shouting into the ether. You have the chat, but it’s always a beat behind.” They’ve resorted to some strange solutions, like “dogprov” — “We had two dogs do a scene. Mike held up his dog, and it was a puppet.”

"We decided that it wasn’t the right thing to do anymore, to try to raise money in a time of social unrest, when people have less money in their pockets. That money should go towards groups, campaigns and causes that can change the world."

Corey O'Rourke

People tuned in, but ticket sales didn’t generate enough money to keep the nonprofit sustainable, so they organized a days-long “marathon” show online. “I didn’t feel great about it at the time,” O’Rourke says, “because we were already living in a pandemic, and there were so many needs to fundraise for frontline workers.” Still, he reasoned, “this thing that has saved people’s lives needs its life saved now.” They scheduled the marathon to start on June 5.

Then, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the Black Lives Matter protests began and the ImprovBoston team made the decision to defer the marathon. Then, they canceled it. “We decided that it wasn’t the right thing to do anymore,” O’Rourke says, “to try to raise money in a time of social unrest, when people have less money in their pockets. That money should go towards groups, campaigns and causes that can change the world. Of course, comedy is important, and it helps people laugh, and it helps them feel something that isn’t pain, but ImprovBoston isn’t going to save the world right now.”

They’d planned the marathon as a last attempt to keep the lights on. Without it, they had to make a painful decision — but they felt certain of what they’d do. “We would never want to dip into the savings of ImprovBoston to try to pay ourselves,” Carr says. They’re very aware of the institution’s long history — 35 years — and they want to steward, and continue, that history. “We’re all performers,” says MacFarland. “I think maybe if we were just folks who worked in an office, we might’ve said, ‘we’ll drain this thing dry!’ But because we believe in the arts, and we’re part of that community, it was a no-brainer to make sure arts survive.” They’ve closed down now, so that they can reopen later — tentatively, in January 2021.

"We teach the philosophy of improv: that everybody’s improvising every day when they wake up, because no one has a script. We’ve been teaching that for so long, and now we have to do it in our everyday life."

Kelly MacFarland

They’re optimistic about that future, without being Pollyannaish. They’ve spent their professional lives studying and teaching and performing improv comedy. Improvisers make up every show as they perform, usually starting with a “suggestion” from the audience — a location, a role, or situation. The improvisers respond to those prompts in funny and creative ways. It’s no wonder that, describing the decision to take a voluntary furlough, O’Rourke started to laugh, and MacFarland and Carr laughed with him. Changes often make us laugh or cry, and improvisers practice finding the humor.

This epidemic is the biggest real-life “suggestion” that our society has received en masse: what if our world shut down?

“You have to be able to adapt, right?” MacFarland says. “And we teach the philosophy of improv: that everybody’s improvising every day when they wake up, because no one has a script. We’ve been teaching that for so long, and now we have to do it in our everyday life.”

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Sarah Ruth Bates Cognoscenti contributor
Sarah Ruth Bates is a writer in Boston.

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