Second City |

Second City

Stewart Oksenhorn

The Second City, the Chicago-based comedy company, has, in its 42 years, reached the proportions of an empire. There is the resident main-stage company, the company’s flagship, which performs regularly in Second City’s Chicago theater. A few steps from the main-stage theater is a smaller theater, home to Second City, e.t.c. – short for experimental theater company – an edgier, more daring companion to the main-stage resident company. There is the Second City training center, which trains thousands of students each year in improvisation-based comedy.Outside of Chicago, there are resident companies in Toronto and Detroit, with another planned for Cleveland. A Second City show is soon to open in Las Vegas. There are three separate touring companies, bringing Second City’s brand of humor to comedy outposts across the continent. And, of course, there was for too short a period in the ’70s, the television show “SCTV,” which was fondly remembered in a tribute at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen a few years back.And, over time, Second City has built a formidable roster of graduates that gives muscle to its name: John Belushi, Alan Arkin, John Candy, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Robert Klein, Harold Ramis, Dan Castellaneta and many more of the top personalities in comedy came through the ranks in Second City.So vast is it, and so strong its reputation, Second City has created a legacy almost beyond its control. It seems if you are a comic actor with no affiliation to Second City, you ain’t nobody.”Everybody in L.A. puts it in their resumé, and 98 percent of them are lying,” said Brian Boland.Boland has bona fide connections to Second City. When the Second City Touring Company performs at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, Friday, Feb. 2, Boland will be part of the troupe of six performers, a music director and a stage manager. And though Boland has been a touring company member, as well as resident main-stage company understudy, for nearly three years, he too wishes for closer ties to Second City. For one thing, Boland, unlike most of Second City’s performers, did not train at Second City’s school, but at Improv Olympic Theater, another Chicago institution that makes the second city the first city of comedic arts.”I wish I had” studied at Second City, said the 33-year-old Boland. “They go into more extensive training in writing and scene construction. I think I would have been socialized in how Second City does things sooner. But it was a cool thing that they accepted me, not having come out of the training center.”Looking ahead, Boland hopes to leave a deep mark in Second City history. While Boland, like most touring company members, has created original pieces for his touring troupe, the ultimate goal is to join the resident mainstage company. Only the material created by the mainstage company makes its way into the standing repertoire, which can provide material for years.”If you’re in the touring company, you didn’t necessarily etch yourself in the history here,” said Boland. “You didn’t create a lasting scene that people go back and look at. For me, I’d like to create an original show here, something that will last. If I do that, I’ll be happy for the rest of my life, for this little capsule of time.”Aspenites don’t have to look too hard to see examples of Second City creations that have gone on to an extended life. In the upcoming U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, two productions – the two-person show “Dratch and Fey” and David Pasquesi’s one-man alternative show, “Kill the Messenger” – were created at Second City. Another USCAF performer, Ali Farahnakian, is a Second City alum, though his one-man show was not created at Second City. — Boland grew up in the shadows of Second City, raised in the Chicago suburbs. But to a jock like Boland, comedy and theater didn’t seem like proper pursuits.Boland was, however, by his own description, a smart-aleck kid. In 1994, while working as a market researcher for restaurant companies, Boland went to a stand-up show that featured three comedians. Boland enjoyed the stand-up portion of the show all right, but when the three comics ended the show together with a collaborative improvised effort, Boland was hooked.”That part really captured me,” he said. “I thought one guy was good, but I thought I could be better than the other two guys pretty quickly.”Boland went on to study at the Improv Olympic Theater, in the same neighborhood as Wrigley Field, for three years, before he was hired, in his second tryout, by Second City. Boland succeeded against the odds: There are thousands of students taking classes at Second City each year, and there are only about 30 acting spots available at any one time.Then came the hard part: doing something to stand out among those 30 Second City performers, creating a body of work that would put Boland among the list of illustrious Second City graduates. In the current show, Boland created “Hostage,” a sketch about the kidnapping of an elderly Jewish woman. Another favorite contribution of his was “Sunday School,” a sexually tense sketch about two Southern friends. Working in the touring company – writing and performing and expanding one’s skills – is equal parts opportunity and responsibility.”It’s certainly not overwhelming,” said Boland of the pressure created by the Second City history, “but we’re all definitely aware of how great it is to work here. A lot of people, some really good people, never do. When you get here, you’re really blessed.”You feel a responsibility to uphold the standards that they had, and to leave a little piece of yourself behind. It forces you to not relax, and to do your best. It’s like a sports team with a reputation to uphold – you want to honor that. The touring companies are like farm teams; the resident companies are the real thing. And the main stage is a higher level.”The pay for a member of the touring company is not great. Boland also writes, directs other improv teams and works occasionally with Improv Olympic Theater. But it is all well worth it to be able, legitimately, to put Second City on the resumé.”It’s starving-actor level,” Boland said of the wages. “But this is not only an opportunity to learn and create, but to establish your name. It gets you out there. There are always people checking out the touring company for all different gigs. You can end up writing for `Saturday Night Live.’ That happens all the time.”

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