Artistic Directions: A Conversation with Mike Descoteaux
It’s 10:00 PM. You have been at work since 8:00 AM and you still have 2 hours to go. All of your friends and family have long since gone home, had dinner, and caught up on both Mad Men and Game of Thrones. This is your third fourteen-hour day this week. And it’s only Wednesday. If this scenario sounds familiar, you are not alone.
Such is the case for Mike Descoteaux, the new Artistic Director of ImprovBoston. After a decade in Chicago’s arts scene, Mike is back in Boston putting in long days and nights at the helm (alongside Managing Director Zach Ward) of a remarkable nonprofit comedy institution—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
IB: How long have you been at ImprovBoston?
MD: 3 months. Also, 3 years. I’ve had the honor of serving as ImprovBoston’s first full-time Artistic Director for just over 3 months now. When I moved back to my hometown of Boston from Chicago 3 years ago, my first priority was to find the comedy community; ImprovBoston became instant family.
IB: Comedy in New England is starting to heat up. Of all of the different venues and opportunities, why ImprovBoston?
MD: The mission. The artists. The audiences. As a nonprofit theater, our top priority is pretty damn simple: make Boston a better place to live. We have no obligation to share holders, no quarterly profits to churn out, no greedy CEO to appease. We serve the people: the performers, writers and teachers who make ImprovBoston so brilliantly funny. We serve the people: the audiences of all ages, races and beliefs who fill our theaters every night eager to laugh, to learn, to experience truly interactive art. We serve the people: the hundreds of students who take our classes in the hopes of developing new skills, taking risks, making friends. We serve the people: the thousands of youth and teens whose lives have been changed by ImprovBoston’s pioneering anti-bullying and social support work in schools throughout the state. We serve the people: performing fundraisers for local charities, volunteering at and donating to sister organizations, offering scholarships in our own comedy school (I could go on…), ImprovBoston proves every day that its heart is in not just the “right” place, but the best place. And that’s why we, and the army of IB alumni before us, gladly give countless 12 hour days and 7 day weeks—we are passionate about creating something so much bigger than ourselves.
IB: That is an interesting way to put it - “serving the people.” Moving beyond audiences, how does ImprovBoston serve the artists who call the theater home?
MD: Support. In every possible way. ImprovBoston is a, scratch that, the place for artists to find the support they need to take the greatest risks. We provide the stages, the pages, the classrooms, rehearsal spaces, pianos, training, marketing, guidance, connections…and the drinks. As a nonprofit built and run by performers, we are committed to fostering the success of our artists. Sure, we’re still a professional organization that has to tackle complex issues like intellectual property, contracts and quality control. But unlike a for-profit institution, we have the luxury (and responsibility) of being guided by our moral compass.
IB: Over the last five years, ImprovBoston has grown by leaps and bounds. As IB continues to grow, how do you protect both the theater and the artists?
MD: This theater IS the artists. So we protect both. Dealing with contracts and who-owns-what sucks. No doubt. I’ve made my living as a freelance and union artist for over a decade now and have seen more than my fair share of legalese. I want the Boston area to be a place where making a living in the comedy arts is a viable pursuit, where the artist is empowered and her work is protected, where careers are not stifled but launched. ImprovBoston is the foundation of this vision. To get there, the nonprofit theater must protect the shows and festivals that provide the space for our artists to experiment while investing in the resources to reach the audiences who will see those shows. As theater management, we dedicate ourselves to building the performance platforms that will best serve both artist and audience. Improvisers, sketch performers, stand-ups and musicians have made ImprovBoston their home for a reason. I think that reason is support.
IB: Can you put 30 years of comedy in perspective?
MD: The remarkable history of the organization puts IB on a short-list of American improv institutions. 30 years in the business of funny is no easy feat. We’re talking 3 decades of community-centered comedy. At a time when improv wasn’t a household word, a small group of dedicated performers set out to establish a theater that would allow a city to come together and laugh; they dedicated themselves to an art form that celebrates the audience, demands immediacy, challenges convention and builds bridges through the power of collaborative creation. While the theater has grown from a few itinerant shows a week into a theater complex that sports 2 theaters, a bar, classrooms, a 350-student-per-term comedy school, a professional touring company and a platform for all types of comedy highlighted through 18 shows every week, our mission remains as powerfully simple as ever: building community through laughter.
IB: Any last thoughts?
MD: Yup. Our comedy community numbers in the hundreds. Include students and we’re in the thousands. Include audiences and that number gets mind-bogglingly big. How do one Artistic Director and one Managing Director turn these hundreds of unique perspectives, experiences, deeply-held opinions, varying comedy interests, and disparate career objectives into a unified vision? That’s the challenge. What I do know is that Zach and I are always open to feedback. Our cards are proudly displayed at the bar for anyone to take. Our email addresses are on the website. My calendar is jam-packed with one-on-one community member meetings…and I will make time for as many more as requested by the performers, directors, teachers, and collaborators I am honored to serve. If you have an idea, a request, a question or just a good joke, hit me up. Together, we make our theater our theater.
ImprovBoston runs shows five nights a week at 40 Prospect Street in Cambridge, MA. To see the full list of shows, please check out the schedule at ImprovBoston.com. We also offer classes in improv, sketch, and stand up comedy, all of which are all taught by some of the finest performers in New England. For more information, please check out ImprovBoston Comedy School.
It’s not just the comedy that you need to check out - it’s the culture that demands to be seen.