Second to none

By WilliamPrentiss

The Second City Theatre may have gotten its name from its hometown of Chicago, but that hasn’t stopped it from spreading well beyond the stage throughout the past 50 years.

Since its founding, several stages, training centers and touring companies have emerged as part of the well-known troupe’s family. It has even crossed into the television medium with its Emmy award-winning

show “SCTV.”

“It went too quickly,” said Second City President Andrew Alexander. “I’ve been doing this for almost 35 years. When you start to see all the different generations that are coming back, it starts to take you back to different kinds of memories.”

On Dec. 11-13, Second City will celebrate its 50th birthday with current and former cast members such as Steven Colbert and “SCTV” alumni Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short and Dave Thomas.

A variety of panels, performances and screenings are planned, including a documentary on founder Paul Sills and bits from classic revues performed by multiple generations of Second City alumni.

The improv troupe was founded in 1959 by a group of young, University of Chicago alumni and members of the just-folded Compass Players. Paul Sills founded Compass and went on to run Second City. Del Close, who would become a staple of the Chicago improv scene, joined Second City two years later.

Alexander started on the troupe’s Toronto stage in 1974 when he bought the troubled theater. He went on to create “SCTV” with much of Toronto’s talent and produced more than 150 hours of “SCTV,” which won two Emmys and was nominated for 12 over the course of its run. He eventually purchased Chicago’s Second City Theatre in 1985.

Alexander now works in both Los Angeles and Chicago. He said that Chicago’s improv scene is special because of how supportive its different players and troupes are.

“Chicago is a city that really takes care of its own, and it’s one of the few places in North America where an actor can really study their craft and be nurtured,” Alexander said. “You’re not in the glare of New York City or Los Angeles. You don’t have to worry if there’s an agent or management sitting in the audience. It’s much more about the work.”

That community spirit can be seen on the various stages across Chicago. Second City alumni and training center graduates sprinkle the improv scene. Both iO Chicago and the Annoyance Theater have roots from Second City’s main stage. iO Chicago’s co-founder Del Close was Second City’s artistic director and co-founder Charna Halpern graduated from Second City’s own Player’s Workshop.

Halpern said she left Second City because she needed a place to perform.

“We had all these troupes and we had nowhere to play,” Halpern said. “There wasn’t an Improv Olympic. There weren’t all these little clubs that had improv. Nobody cared about improvers at the time. You’d have to go to nightclubs and beg the owners.”

She said Second City’s fame has helped her, especially because of the attention it’s brought to the city.

“People would come to Chicago for Second City not hearing of iO—many, many years ago,” Halpern said. “They created a bandwagon I was able to jump on. I always felt like they were the big mother ship I could stand behind.”

The attention Second City attracts from talent seekers is responsible for launching many comedians’ and performers’ careers.

Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, started at Second City’s training center with Halpern. Tina Fey, Jack McBrayer and Scott Adsit of “30 Rock” all took a turn there, too. That’s not counting former “Saturday Night Live” cast members who performed on the main stage at one point or another. Alexander said that this poaching of talent by shows like “Saturday Night Live” was actually a major motivator to start “SCTV.”

“Most of the ‘SNL’ people had come out of Second City, so that was what caused me to start my own show,” Alexander said. “It was more out of defense than offense.”

Both have their own training programs and run shows by their students. Halpern said the fact that there are so many opportunities to perform makes Chicago unique. She remembers one instance when she was hired to teach two improv groups in Toronto. She offered to teach both groups of eight simultaneously to help save them money, but got a strong “no” from both.

“They hate each other,” Halpern said. “They won’t do it. They won’t work together. I was like, ‘Why, what are you fighting for? You’ve got nothing. You each got little crumbs. If you make a big scene and work together then people will go to your theater and the other theater.’”

Aaron Sjoholm, Second City’s training center operations manager, started working at the theater six years ago and also went through the training program. He said that the training aspect of Second City was much more of an informal affair until more recently.

“For the longest time it was nothing formal,” Sjoholm said. “An actor or director would just decide to do a workshop for people they knew or who were working here in some capacity. Then, sometime in the ’80s, Second City teamed up with Players Workshop and offered classes through that organization.”

Second City has also partnered with Columbia and teaches classes as a part of Columbia’s Comedy Studies curriculum. Sjoholm said the increase in students taking classes has made it harder for people to stand out, but many people are in the training center for fun or to apply it to their own established careers.

“A lot of people come to us for the ability to work on the fly to create something that is fixed eventually,” Sjoholm said. “I think that’s very applicable to a lot of things. There are a lot of people who take classes because they just want to be better at presenting themselves.”

Columbia Student Fellow Tamale Sepp graduated from both Second City’s Conservatory and iO Chicago’s training program. She said the skills she learned informed her own one-woman show in 2004, and she is using those same techniques to write her performance thesis for her Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts and Media. Sepp received her bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Education and Agricultural Technology Management from the University of Arizona, but moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy. She said the people she met there ranged in age and career types.

“You had people who were older, who had completed many years of college and were actively pursuing another career,” Sepp said. “I know of lawyers and doctors who literally dropped their other careers and chucked it all to pursue this.”

That drive has created the improv scene that stands today. Second City’s role in it may be shifting though,

Sepp said.

“I feel like people have more choices available to them at this point,” Sepp said. “It’s easier to get your name out, get recognition and get your work out than it used to be, but I think Second City’s popularity is really based on what they’ve done. They established themselves as a feeder pool for big-name things like ‘SCTV’ and ‘Saturday Night Live.’”