When you're watching a local-produced sketch or improvisational comedy show, chances are that the performers, writers and other crew members aren't getting a single cent from the box office or the club housing them.
Lindsay Goldapp, the managing director of the nonprofit Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, wrote on the theater's official blog that she's been improvising for the last 20 years on stages all over the country and she "can count on two hands the amount of improv theaters who have structure in place to pay their performers" such as the HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis.
"I don't know how we got to this understanding and this assumption that it wasn't going to happen," Goldapp says. "I don't know how we got here. I've been part of many institutions that haven't paid, and it bothers me. As long as I was appreciated and treated well, I loved it."
Comedy club regulars might be surprised to learn the hard work they are enjoying from an improv comedy team is being done for a tiny bit of gas money or nothing.
"I remember when I found out performers who took the stage at comedy clubs around the country were not getting paid, I was baffled," says Andrea Kyprianou Baum, a Stomping Ground board member who also works as the program director for the theater's Improv for Life program. "Any artist that is putting their creative work out into the community should have the opportunity to be paid, especially if another organization is financially benefiting from their art."
Goldapp says she and the club's board want Stomping Ground to be one of those paying comedy theaters she can add to her finger count. She announced on the club's blog that all main stage performers and writers, visiting shows with multiple performances and comedians in the Local Access Stand-Up Show will receive some kind of monetary compensation.
"We chose to make it a priority and found a way to make it work sooner than we thought we would be able to," Goldapp says. "It's a priority because artists should be paid for their work, talent and time especially if they are professionals doing it at a professional level. We have performers who have been doing shows for 20 years, and we felt they should be compensated for their time."
The pay structure is based on each show's ticket sales, with the first $150 of box office funds or roughly the first 15 tickets sold going to the theater and the remainder going to the performers. Headlining stand-up comedians will get paid after the first $50 after the theater's $150 in ticket sales collections. All of the show's stand-ups, including the headliner, will take home the remainder of those ticket sales, according to the theater's blog.
The payment amount may not be uniform, but the benefits are sizable if a show can pack the house with paying customers, Goldapp says.
"I wish we could do a guaranteed price, but the potential is still huge," she says. "We have shows that have sold out, and we can make $650 per show. That's a nice payday for a great show, and it motivates people to make great shows that people want to come see."
The club's new payment system doesn't just let the theater right a wrong that's a staple of the improv and sketch comedy community across the country. Goldapp says she believes it will only improve the quality of Stomping Ground's shows and performers.
"I believe that when you compensate your employees, they will be motivated just like any business to do better work," Goldapp says. "They feel appreciated. It's a win-win for everyone. They're making better shows and are motivated to get people to come to their shows. They get a great crowd, and everybody gets paid."
Baum says there are also benefits that can spread to the theater's educational programs since classes are taught by some of the theater's main stage performers.
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"When a student pays money to take a class, I believe they should have a new or better skill set from this experience," Baum says. "Just like any training that is mastered, a student should have the opportunity to use this new skill set to their benefit. It only makes sense to me that when trained performers qualify to be on Stomping Ground’s stage while bringing an audience to this nonprofit theater, we pay them like any other job."
"I think for me what it changes is the understanding in the community about what Stomping Ground values," says Jacie Hood Wenzel, an actress, writer, director and volunteer who works at Stomping Ground and other area theaters and came to improv comedy after working in the Dallas theater community. "A lot of places will pay directors and the tech crew, but they won't pay the performers. It's almost like saying their time isn't as valuable or their skills aren't as valuable as others who are getting paid. To make that a priority, you're saying that your performers are a valued part of your team."
There are some small financial risks with a payment system, but ticket sales aren't the only revenue they and other comedy clubs take in, and they typically aren't the biggest revenue stream.