There are fewer laughs at ImprovBoston this year, but its leaders are vowing a change in culture to repair the damage.
For the first time in seven years, there’s no Geek Week at the Central Square comedy club and school. Despite a call for submissions this year to the annual geek-culture comedy festival, promised for April 16-21, ImprovBoston confirmed this week that the festival is canceled.
The annual Women in Comedy Festival was huge March 21-24, bringing such comedians as Maria Bamford, Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz to perform in venues stretching from Harvard Square’s Club Passim to Jamaica Plain’s Milky Way. But for the first time in the festival’s five years, ImprovBoston hosted none of it.
In addition, many area standup comedians are boycotting the club. People at ImprovBoston report having too few performers to fill a show or finding comics reluctant to travel with sketch comedy groups.
The troubles have grown significant enough that about two-thirds of a Monday town hall at the theater was devoted to Managing Director Zach Ward and Artistic Director Mike Descoteaux explaining what’s happened and asking the broader ImprovBoston community for input on how to heal the rift. Well over a dozen performers and staff members were seen gathered Monday before Ward asked a reporter to leave. Details have been provided by and confirmed with comics and members of the theater community.
The president of ImprovBoston’s board of directors, Blair Howell, granted a lengthy interview about the troubles Friday night, saying changes in board membership and the thinking of the remaining members has resulted in improved policies, which would be published by the end of the month and clarify the theater’s position.
“It created disharmony, and we weren’t happy about that,” Howell said of the theater’s previous policies and recent actions. “It goes against what we want to be as an institution, and it’s not what we’re about at all.”
There have been two main issues splitting the comedy community, both having to do with intellectual property.
The simpler problem: Included in upgrades coming to the theater’s 40 Prospect St. space is sophisticated audio and digital video equipment that can capture every performance and provide a recording almost immediately. That can be valuable to improv troupes and standup comics who want to see how they did and show others what they can do – but good performances can also be valuable to the theater for promotional purposes, and all agree the phrasing that introduced the concept played up the theater’s right to record and use the material. As one person at the meeting said, describing how the original written policy was perceived, “It sounds like you’re being forced.”
The solution, reached by Ward, Descoteaux and the assembled theater people, was to make recording “opt in” and to “frontload” the wording that showed every performer had a choice to have cameras watching – and even to take back their consent if a performance went badly.
The more complex issue pertains to the comedy festivals. Last year ImprovBoston moved to identify Geek Week and the Women in Comedy Festival as its property – events identified with the theater that it didn’t want going anywhere else.
The organizers of the Women In Comedy Festival – Michelle Barbera, Maria Ciampa and Elyse Schuerman – declined to comment for this story. While some members of the standup comics community have said the festival’s trademark is in actual litigation, but that the trio of founders is in a better position because they already trademarked the brand, Ward, Howell and others say the theater and festival are at peace, legal and otherwise. “There was a question who owned the name and the festival itself. It’s indisputable that it was born at ImprovBoston,” Howell said. “But there was never even a notion of litigation per se. We never thought it’d be necessary.”
The situation now is “100 percent amicable,” Howell said.
Geek Week organizer Kevin Harrington also declined to comment for this story, but the legal standoff over the Geek Week brand is better known in what has been a tight-knit Cambridge comedians community.
A Geek Week chronology
An early sign of trouble was an April 2012 article in The Boston Globe about the year’s upcoming Geek Week. In it, Ward spoke with correspondent Joel Brown, while Harrington wasn’t interviewed or mentioned. It put Ward in the position of explaining the origins of Geek Week five years earlier, when he was still in North Carolina and his hiring at ImprovBoston in 2011 hadn’t even been conceived, while Harrington was busy in the unsung role of preparing the launch of the festival for just a week later.
Whatever the reasons behind the omission, people noticed.
“Any time I’ve explained to any respectable comedian what’s been going on over there, they’ve been gobsmacked, especially former Boston comics who’ve moved to new cities,” said Mehran Khaghani, a standup comic who’s lobbied passionately for a boycott. He described his peers’ surprise at there being in Cambridge a “tone and climate where we’d let something like this happen – that [ImprovBoston] sent lawyers after individuals. They can’t believe their ears.”
After last year’s Geek Week, Harrington and ImprovBoston went their separate ways, with Harrington using the Geek Week brand on his website, Twitter feed, Facebook page and at independently run events at Comicazi, a Davis Square comic book store. Harrington was quoted in and photographed for a Sept. 19 Boston Globe article by Ethan Gilsdorf, who said he “runs an annual comedy festival called Geek Week.”
Two days later, the theater filed for a trademark on the term “Geek Week.”
Harrington ran Geek Week events through Oct. 6, but within a few weeks he and the theater were exchanging cease-and-desist letters. As a result, he changed his branding, calling his events “Geek Comedy Nights”; the theater ultimately called off the 2013 festival.
Policy “growing pains”
The legal clashes and testing of intellectual property borders have bothered local comedians, and even the creation of the “opt-in” rule for filming doesn’t mollify Khaghani.
“For anything shy of ‘What we did was patently wrong, we made a huge fucking mistake,’ I still don’t think anyone should work with them for a while. They behaved greedily, viciously and exercised the worst kind of blind ambition in trying to bolster their sorely lacking artistic credibility. You always have to look out for the greedy and ambitious types,” Khaghani said Thursday.
In some ways, Howell came near to meeting Khaghani’s wishes.
“I think we’ve let it go,” Howell said of Geek Week and its recent approach to intellectual property. “We’ve grown up and can acknowledge where we’ve maybe made some mistakes.”
In November, when the clash over Geek Week was heating up, board member Mat Gagne gave an extensive interview covering the origins of the theater, its growth and future. (He and Gorn agree his term on the board has since ended and he moved out of the area for a job, although he also remains listed as board treasurer on the theater’s website through June 30.)
When moving into its Inman Square space in 1990-91, ImprovBoston consisted of a relative handful of performers doing a mere two shows a week, he said, and now there are upward of 350 people taking part in 15 shows a week in a space five times the size.
“When you get to that size, you have growing pains. Now you have to worry about things like the bar, insurance, human resources. Everything gets wildly more complex,” Gagne said.
It can be simple, he said, especially for people who come to the theater solely to rent space for their own production. Things get more complicated when the theater takes on some of the roles of a producer, and have gotten more complicated still as the number of platforms being used by artists have multiplied.
“The intellectual property topic is big in all the entertainment world, just because you’ve got things like podcasts and video that’s so easy to take and throw up on YouTube now,” Gagne said. “We want an artist to be able to determine how they want to proceed, and our goal is to give people the options to proceed as they like.”
At the time, Gagne felt a final, satisfying policy would be in place in December. Five months later, Improv Boston is still struggling with litigation and explanations.
With wording due before May, though, Howell could give a preview of what that policy would look like: “If there are things we want to hang onto, like a festival, that’ll be written ahead of time. We want to avoid any confrontation in the future, so people feel free to be carefree and funny. We don’t need to own stuff,” he said. “At ImprovBoston from this point forward [the policy is that] performers and members of the community will own whatever they bring to ImprovBoston unless ImprovBoston has been upfront about what we own and want to keep.”
Still, Howell stopped short of defusing the situation permanently. On the one hand, he said, “Our mission is to support an artists community. We don’t want to own anybody’s ideas, we don’t want to own anything something else created,” and he stressed repeatedly that “at this point we are not pursuing anything along [legal] lines” when it comes to Geek Week. “There is no interest on ImprovBoston’s part to have any litigation whatsoever.”
He acknowledged that “we did not at the time have very clear parameters” of ownership and that, thanks to theater records being less than meticulously maintained in past years it was not cut-and-dried if Harrington had legitimate sole claims to own the Geek Week brand or whether it was enough of a community effort to justify theater efforts to claim it. “Some members of the board did feel very strongly about it,” Howell said. “After a lot of reflection, it’s just simply unclear.”
“We feel very pleased to say we’re not going to pursue these things,” Howell said.
In part, that approach came with the departure of a board member – not Gagne, he made clear – who’d drafted some of the strongest language in pursuit of intellectual property rights. But even with that member gone Howell didn’t see the need to have the theater’s lawyers notify Harrington that it was standing down from the cease-and-desist order.
“If a letter like that does need to go out, it will,” Howell said. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t go out, but I’m not sure it’s needed. I’m not sure that we’re wrong. All I’m saying is, there are not plans to take further actions.”
He also said Geek Week “continues to be a festival that we will consider running at some point in the future, but at this point there are no plans.”
A written statement from Ward also left the door open to continued legal action – and contradicted Howell somewhat by implying Harrington’s change to “Geek Comedy Night” was the reason litigation is on hold:
Geek Week was founded by ImprovBoston. It is a brand that belongs to the theater. A person associated with the festival made the decision to take Geek Week elsewhere. We issued a cease-and-desist [letter] related to use of the Geek Week brand. The theater has trademarked this brand. This person made the decision to take Geek Week elsewhere. The name of the show was changed and we did not take any further action. The theater wanted to protect a brand it has established, that is why it took action.
As much as Howell and others may want peace, harmony and all the laughs back at ImprovBoston, it will be hard for Khaghani, Harrington and others wary of the theater not to see the difference from Ward’s statement about its other wayward festival:
The Women In Comedy Festival is a separate entity from ImprovBoston. They are not an entity we own.
“I don’t think anyone should work with them or for them or legitimize them,” Khaghani said of ImprovBoston. “I don’t think their hearts are in the right place.”