|Chicago's Second City...wall of fame|
In Chicago there's no shortage of places to study acting. Theaters are to Chicago what pubs are to Dublin. "Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub," wrote James Joyce in Ulysses about his hometown. "Good puzzle would be cross Chicago without passing a theater (or a hot dog joint)," writes me, here, about my hometown. Some sources put the count of theaters in Chicago at over 200. Some also claim this makes Chicago the true theater capital of the U.S. I don't know enough about American theater to back up or challenge that claim. But I do know that Chicago's contribution to American theater--and world theater--is pretty significant.
Chicago is, after all, the Second City and the home of The Second City, the improvisational theater troupe that revolutionized comedy theater in the U.S. and beyond when it first opened its doors in 1959. The Second City is also where I took those magical acting classes, and where I recently joined up with a walking tour of Chicago's Old Town neighborhood on a brisk Sunday morning.
|Balloon house architecture in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.|
|In Old Town.|
|Seen in a chocolate shop window in Old Town. Money, guns, and high cholesterol--the story of Chicago.|
|Second City alumni John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Rosemary Radcliffe, Eugene Levy, and Gilda Radner, in 1974, pic on entranceway to The Second City theatre in Chicago.|
Considering Chicago improv's solid record of churning out future stars, it only makes sense that the most famous improv theater of all would milk its reputation for tourism purposes. The Second City has long promoted itself as a must-see attraction for visitors to Chicago, and its walking tours of the Old Town area are nothing new--there was a tour on offer by the theater going back at least 10 years ago. After a few years' hiatus of the original Second City tour, the current walking tour was created by Margaret Hicks, a Chicago tour guide, author, and improv performer. Hicks leads the tour twice a week--on Sunday mornings and Wednesday early evenings--from May through October. The tour lasts about an hour and a half to 2 hours and costs only $15 per person. (Hicks has her own tour company that offers a few other walking tours of different areas of Chicago, called Chicago Elevated. She didn't tell me this, as I turned shy and forgot to ask her a few basic questions about herself after the tour, but I stalked, er, Googled her later and found her Twitter account and FB page--I've provided links in case you'd like to stalk her too.)
|Margaret Hicks in front of the Twin Anchors. I could not for the life of me get a picture of her with her eyes open this day.|
|Margaret Hicks shows us a Chicago home with a plaque on it, so naturally we had to stop and look at it.|
|St. Michael's Church in Old Town. Part of the church survived the Chicago Fire of 1871. This is also where Second City alum Chris Farley went to mass regularly.|
|The Twin Anchors bar and restaurant in Old Town. Fans of the films Return to Me and The Dark Knight might recognize this place.|
|Just a few blocks from The Second City and Piper's Alley, the Twin Anchors was a favorite hangout of Frank Sinatra. By the way, that dude on the right is having his novel made into a movie by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.|
|The Sears Tower as seen from an Old Town side street.|
|Up the street from The Second City,a bit of Old Town and old Chicago history.|
|In Old Town. Not a theater, this is a horse-and-carriage company and stables.|
|Comedy competition in Old Town. The difference between a club like Zanies and The Second City is that Zanies is strictly stand-up (i.e., scripted) while The Second City is improv and experimental.|
|More famous faces.|
|List of Second City alumni inside the theater building.|
|Find the famous name.|
There's another specific requirement on the way to The Second City Mainstage, one that's required even before auditioning for The Conservatory. Improv and comedy writing classes aren't enough. All aspiring Conservatory students must have completed an acting course before auditioning. And that's kinda where my own experience with The Second City comes in...
I've never auditioned for The Conservatory. And I'm not a former improv student. What I am is a woman who had wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, but never pursued it in any way. I was extremely shy for one thing...I still am. Plus it was made clear to me when I was young that such dreams weren't realistic. "You want a nice clean job," I remember my mother telling me when I was young and mentioned something about wanting to be an actress. What she meant was some position in an office or a school maybe, something stable. I didn't have the confidence back then to push ahead with my dreams anyway, but I didn't have the practicality in me to entirely forget them either. And there was the shyness problem anyway--really the biggest obstacle. (In defense of my mother and father, I came to understand that their point of view comes from being born into the Great Depression to uneducated parents and growing up during a world war in urban poverty--in my father's case--and working-class--in my mother's case--with little education of their own beyond high school. They didn't have much stability or financial security growing up. They wanted to be sure their own children did. And one of the last occupations that provides stability or security is acting.)
|Outside the Mainstage entrance, by the box office.|
|Famous faces on the box office wall at Second City.|
|On the box office wall. Stephen Colbert would be so proud of me turning a night vegging on the couch watching "Cold Case" into the beginning of a creative journey. ;-)|
The acting program at The Second City Training Center at that time consisted of 3 levels (I believe they've since added on 1 or 2 more). In a nutshell, in the first level you worked on a monologue, in the second you got a partner and worked on a scene, and in the third you worked on scenes and monologues from a specific, more challenging playwright (in the case of my group, we worked on Tennessee Williams). All 3 levels were taught by Michael Pieper, a theater director from San Diego (by way of Nebraska) who created the acting program at The Second City. He'd probably be embarrassed for me to say it here, but I came to regard Michael as something of an angel. Though a big man with a fullback's physique, he was nothing like the scary and demanding "Master Thespian" type teacher I expected. He was never pretentious, never insulting or unfair. He had no interest in making a student feel inferior or unable or as if he or she had no right to be in his class. Michael taught us acting based on the Method technique, pioneered by Stanislavsky and later Lee Strasberg. We rarely did anything improvisational in class. We worked with scripts, we learned beat work, we memorized lines, we rehearsed, we learned how to audition. That isn't to say we never experimented--Michael in fact encouraged this. I remember one class in the first level where we all practiced our monologues over and over, out loud and at the same time, using different accents, different emotions, different postures and positions, no matter how seemingly inappropriate some of these accents or emotions or movements might be to the scene. The idea was that you never knew what such experimentation and play and creative open-mindedness would trigger in your interpretation of a character and scene, what complexities and nuances might develop. Don't worry about making a fool or failure out of yourself, Michael would tell us. Just play. Use your body. Get out of your head. Live in the moment.
|Ordinary Chicago setting, a few blocks from The Second City.|
|Our city in a garden. Under the el tracks in Old Town.|
He wasn't joking. He did push me, and everyone in the second level class. This was the level where you had to start trusting your classmates and scene partner (and really, the audience) by opening up with your emotions. This meant exercises like getting onstage and sharing memories of highly emotional experiences in your past with the entire class. It was scary as hell, but an essential part of moving forward with your creative (and I'd say personal) development. And it created a bond with your classmates that made performing (and for me, coming to class) easier and more natural.
Another thing about our second level classes was that they were held in the Mainstage theater. So every week we rehearsed onstage alongside the spirits of crazy John Belushi and young Stephen Colbert and in between the tables and chairs in the audience section. Looking back, I wish I'd thought to take some pictures during class, even once. But I was always so nervous before every class, it never occurred to me how fortunate and cool this experience was and that I might take a picture or something for memories' sake.
|Piper's Alley marquee advertising Second City productions. Piper's Alley houses The Second City.|
|Serious face on the facade of Second City's entrance. German novelist Fritz Reuter or Parks and Rec cast member Nick Offerman. You be the judge.|
Michael told us from the very first class to not be afraid of failure. Failure is just a part of life. It shouldn't stop you from taking risks. If anything, it should free you. If there's a chance you might fail, then you might as well go for it. Michael would say, "If you're gonna fail, at least fail big." And funny enough, Margaret Hicks, the tour guide of The Second City's walking tour, left us with a similar philosophy. The greatest thing about both The Second City and Chicago, she told us at the end of the tour, is that you can fail here. In New York everyone is looking to get ahead. In L.A. everyone is looking for the agent or producer in the audience who might hand them a great career. In Chicago? "In Chicago, no one is watching you," said Margaret. In other words, get over yourself. We're the Second City, the Third Coast, The City That Works...which means we're the city that gets on with it and keeps trying. In Chicago, life, success, failure, all of it is much like improv. Improv differs from other kinds of theater and from stand-up comedy in that it's unscripted. This means that if you're an improv performer and you have a bad night on the stage, you can at least just let it go and not worry about it again--it's gone. But it also means that if you have a great night onstage, you have to let it go and can't relive it again--it's gone. The glory is in the moment and in the risk. "If you fail, fail again and fail better," Margaret tells us at the end of the tour. The beauty is that you can fail here--in the Second City and at The Second City--Chicago won't hold it against you.
Improv was born in this town for a reason. Chicago says, 'We're all improvising, we're all working off script. We're all making it up as we go along. Win or lose, pass or fail, hit or miss, just embrace it. Live in the moment. Enjoy it." That's your Second City, baby--second to none.
|Mozart looks out from the facade of The Second City theater. The genius liked a good laugh.|
|Can't stop, won't stop. Seen on a Chicago street corner.|