January 21, 2003

Second City plans training center in Bronzeville

The Second City is on a mission to better reflect the cultural diversity of Chicago. The company has been operating from a North Side theater since it opened in 1959, but plans are currently underway for a South Side training center in Bronzeville, a once-thriving and mostly black area not far from the University's campus.

By bringing more diversity to Second City, Dionna Griffin, director of the outreach program for Second City, said that their goal is to incorporate different points of view into their comedy.

"This program will bring someone who's lived in different circumstances, gone to school in [those places], and then [have them] meet someone else who's lived and gone to school somewhere else. When that happens, then we represent our art form in the best way," Griffin said.

Only 15 black members have joined Second City Chicago since the first, Bob Curry, joined in 1966.

Second City's outreach program was begun in 1992. "It was right around the time of the L.A. riots," Griffin explained.

"Our actors were struggling to represent what happened in the riots. Then the idea kicked in that we have to have the African-Americans in order to represent what is going on."

The Second City Bronzeville Comedy Theatre building, which is scheduled to open in 2004, will house five training center classrooms, a 150-seat theater, approximately four offices, and a bar facility for service of the theater.

The center is intended to serve as a training ground for aspiring actors, comedians, and community residents who want to become professionals or for those who want to use improv skills in everyday life. It will be similar to Second City's other training center in the mostly white Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, and centers in Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.

Second City could not say how much the renovation of the Bronzeville building will cost, as they are not directly responsible for financing the project. The cost of the building will be paid for by black-owned businesses. East Lake Management & Development Corporation and its general contractor, Burling Builders, are minority-owned and controlled, and certified minority business enterprises. The senior management of the Second City Bronzeville Comedy Theatre will be entirely black as well.

Ownership of the new Second City training center will be split in half between Second City Management and black alumni of the Second City.

The ownership arrangement is a way of allowing the people who pushed for the center to have an interest in their legacies, the new black Second City comics, Griffin said.

Before Second City began its outreach program, many of its black comics came from Detroit. Second City hopes that the Bronzeville training center will help Chicago talent get on the Chicago stage.

Second City has frequently used workshops to this end. The workshops, called the Improvising New Voices Seminars, were taught by black and Hispanic Second City alumni and were designed to pull more diverse voices into Second City.

The outreach program also worked to support the minority comic community by sponsoring events and providing training for several smaller, ethnically-oriented ensemble comedy troupes, including South Haitian (Hispanic), Gay Co., StirFriday Night (Asian), and Black Comedy Underground. Second City sponsored events for those groups and provided training.

The new location of Second City is, in a way, returning the improvisational comedy troupe to its roots.

In the late 1950s, a group of politically active University of Chicago students, including filmmaker Mike Nichols, formed a theater club that morphed into the Second City.

The University tradition of improv comedy has since been carried on by student performance groups like Off-Off Campus and Occam's Razor in recent years. Both groups expressed strong support for the efforts of Second City to establish a more diverse pool of actors on which to draw.

"Improv is most definitely an art form, and like a lot of art--like acting--it draws on truths," said Troupe Howard, a third-year in the College, a member of Occam's Razor, and an employee of Second City for the last two years in such roles as assistant to a producer. "If you are going to do a scene of political and racial satire, Second City feels--as do I--that a black man has different truths on which to draw when creating these scenes. No matter how skillful a white actor is, there are truths he cannot address, for example, what is it like to be a black man in America."

Other student performers expressed a sense that minority students in their groups have tended to fall into particular roles during racially sensitive scenes--roles that are absolutely essential for the groups which deal with emotionally charged social and political issues.

The students, however, welcomed a more inclusive role for such voices in improv in general.

"In improv, not just in Second City, what tends to be the case is that you have one clear minority in a given group. Especially African-Americans tend to be given one particular role...that genre of jokes dealing with race issues," said Damien Stankiewicz, a member of Off-Off Campus for three years. "It's kind of weird for an all-white cast to be making these kinds of jokes."