Michael Burns was one step ahead of COVID.
In early March, just before big-name improvisational theatres across the country shut their doors — some for good — the artistic director of Schenectady’s MopCo Improv Theatre could sense the impact COVID would have on his 80-person-capacity venue. With that, he sent out a survey to employees and guests, ultimately deciding to shut the venue’s doors before others did the same.
But he wasn’t as worried as other owners.
MopCo would have gone under “in a month,” Burns said, if it wasn’t for its organizational development consultancy Koppett, which kept things running when other theatres didn’t have the income to stay afloat.
After forming both MopCo and Koppett — named after Burns’ wife and partner Kat Koppett — years back, the pair decided the consultancy and theatre should fall under one LLC. Because of this, the theatre has been able to hang on for life after losing $275,000 worth of business, while only 25% of revenues were coming from the theatre itself.
“Unlike the vast majority of theatres, we have that income stream and that activity, which saved us,” Burns said.
And that revenue, along with Kat Koppett’s networking skills, help from the Small Business Administration and some additional insurance, is what’s making MopCo keep the laughs and excitement going.
The theatre, instead of offering in-person shows, began to offer livestream events online. And instead of in-person improv classes, Burns turned to Zoom calls to keep locals entertained. MopCo’s class offerings have changed now, too, as the theatre now offers single classes for those who want to try improv out or may not have the time to commit to several classes.
“One of the things I love is I’ve had several reports come back to me of people who really look forward to [shows or classes],” Burns said. “It’s contact — ‘There’s people, I know them and they’re doing a fun thing.’ And you can put in suggestions on the chat on YouTube and be part of it. That’s big… We have a lot of regular students who sign up and come back and some of them report to me saying, ‘This is my lifeline.’ ”
Burns compared improv to a “third space,” a spot where people can escape from home or workplaces to be themselves. He said, for a lot of people, there aren’t many options during the pandemic for finding a place to be yourself. Improv, whether it’s virtual or in-person, is just that.
“It’s part of their community,” Burns said. “It’s a place to meet other folks. It’s a place to learn to create something to get away from your hum-drum life and do something really different.”
As for MopCo’s future, Burns said he can’t really plan ahead with the pandemic. But he’s hoping to renovate his theatre to allow for the filming of socially-distant, livestream shows that can hold a safe number of performers.
But he said he doesn’t “have a crystal ball” and can’t predict the future. So for now, his main goal is building up MopCo’s “Zoomprov” classes and giving attendees a glimpse of their shows on YouTube.
For a full list of those classes and shows, you can visit mopco.org.