Life

I Was on My Way to Teach at the Upright Citizens Brigade When It Closed.

Maybe it was time to move on.

Eight black people stand closely together, all looking down at the bottom right corner with expressions of surprise on their face.
Caroline Martin, bottom center, with her improv team Astronomy Club. Lara Solanki/Netflix

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Caroline Martin is a New York-based comedian who has appeared on Broad City, Black Mirror and Crashing, and in the sketch show Astronomy Club on Netflix, which she also wrote and produced. She performed weekly and taught at Upright Citizens Brigade, the famous improv theatre and training center co-founded by Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler, which recently closed its New York locations for good. This as-told-to essay has been transcribed and edited for clarity from a conversation with Rachelle Hampton.

I was actually packing up to go teach improv Thursday night, on March 12th, and then got the phone call that we weren’t going to do classes because of coronavirus. I haven’t taught since then.

Right before that, it really was a scary time, just because I teach five classes a week. What was so strange was that we were in rooms with maybe 16 students, and just me, as coronavirus was getting worse. I started saying, “Guys, let’s not touch each other in scenes. Let’s stay away from each other in scenes.”

I had this one student in my night class the day before classes were cancelled who was coughing a ton. It was very tense. And I’m like, “Are you OK? Do you need to leave? I think you should leave.” And she was like, “You know, I went to the doctor and it’s just a dry cough,” which is a symptom of coronavirus. So that was really strange. I was really grateful and glad to not teach anymore. I knew it was a really hard financial decision, but it didn’t feel safe.

I took all of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv classes. Improv 101 through 401, Advanced Study. People in my team, Astronomy Club, were all improvising at different theaters in New York. One of the members just wanted to get a group of people of color together so we could improvise together. We auditioned together at UCB; they decided that they wanted to put our entire team on. UCB is the place I’ve been the most consistently in my adult life. I was teaching, now, improv 101 to 401.

I definitely didn’t think we were going to close our theater until Broadway went dark on March 12. But it also made sense. I had a weekly show at the theater called The Curfew, Saturdays, 7:30, that was sold out every week. How were we going to do our shows? Were we going to have a full crowd? Were we going to improvise six feet away from each other? Even the best-case scenario, I didn’t really know how it would be possible to do it.

It all just kind of happened pretty fast. I got updates that said any teachers who want to try and do online classes can trailblaze how to figure that out. The staff of our theater, as well as the staff at our training center were let go. And then I got the email that we’re closing New York. For me, that kind of cemented that this is a real thing, and we’re going to be in it for a long time.

How are we going to get back to normal, considering how social improv is? I don’t know. It sucks. I think it might revert back into really small places to improvise. Just to keep the crowds small, and the teams at a limit. UCB has been slowly decreasing its kind of punk rock vibe for a while, so I think people are sad, but it was time to move on as well. I think we were getting more tourists who were maybe looking for something along the lines of a Broadway show.

It could be worse. I will be fine. I had my own show on Netflix, with Astronomy Club. I definitely am feeling confident that I will find something else. But I was most recently teaching at UCB, and now I’ve lost that money, so it is going to force me to find a new job ASAP, once things go back to normal. It was 15 hours of my week every week, so that truly sucks. I am really, really sad to not see my students anymore.

My plan at 31 was not to teach there for the rest of my life, but as a young comedian, it was invaluable to be in a room three hours almost every day problem-solving, looking for issues, trying to help my students, trying to help them tinker with the comedic idea that they wanted to work with. I really think it kept my brain super sharp. And now I’m watching too much Real Housewives and I don’t think that is good for my brain.

I have seen and been invited to do improv shows online on Zoom and on Instagram, and I have declined because there’s something about it that fundamentally makes me sad. Zoom does not help comedic timing. Whoever’s talking, their screen will become the dominant one. But then if someone’s laughing, that will happen, too. I don’t really want people to be tuning in to watch that. I have mostly just been writing. That’s been my way of staying sane. I was asked by this person in Singapore to maybe do some online sketch writing classes. The world is getting a little bit smaller because of all of this, so I might try and figure that out.