A lot can happen when Toronto’s premiere sketch theatre company and comedy training centre is forced to upend its in-person offerings for 20 COVID-19-weary months. And Second City’s long list of changes — some good, some challenging, some yet-to-determined — resembles that classic audience participation game that’s a staple for any improv show.
“Give me a situation! Any situation!” a cast member beckons from the stage. And, in this case, the onslaught of audience suggestions could range from: “You’re moving to a new temporary home because your old one is being demolished for condos and your new one’s not ready!” to “You finally have more women in creative leadership roles than ever before!”
Yup, there’s a lot unpack in this theatre trunk. Here, then, is a list of what’s happened, what is happening and what’s expected to happen at Second City, which makes its return to live, in-person performances this weekend with two shows.
Home sweet temporary home
Second City’s creative director, Carly Heffernan, jokingly says, “Fifth time’s the charm, eh” — a reference to the number of moves the theatre will have made when it relocates to a York Street address sometime late next year.
Until then, there’s the temporary move to location No. 4, a former mattress store on Danforth Avenue. That space is on loan from Comedy Bar, which suspended its plans for a second location to accommodate Second City.
While the Danforth space doesn’t seat as many as the Mercer Street venue (location No. 3), performers and trainers say it’s more conducive to what they do.
“The old venue didn’t feel like a place where you come to gather,” says Nkasi Ogbonnah, cast member in the main stage show “Welcome Back to the Future.” “You’d grab a drink, watch the show, then leave immediately.” This new-for-now space, she said, is “cosy … smaller, but that’s OK. I feel like it’s more inviting for people.”
The layout — the audience is spread out wide instead of deep — “allows you to do more off-the-cuff, natural comedy … to connect with the audience,” said Heffernan.
And in a testament to how interconnected Toronto’s comedy scene is — and likely played no small part in how smoothly this temporary transition happened — Gary Rideout Jr., Comedy Bar’s owner, is also Second City’s director of operations. And he’s married to Heffernan.
Online and in class
Speaking of temporary, that may have been Second City’s intent when it was forced to shift shows and training to online. And even some of its own instructors acknowledge a steep and, for some, daunting learning curve. “There was definitely a resistance to it,” admits main stage actor and improv instructor Andrew Bushell, adding that pre-pandemic, “I didn’t even use FaceTime.”
Musical director Ayaka Kinugawa said she “had to adjust, purchase new gear and learn Zoom really well” when teaching musical improv and team-building for the corporate sector. That the online training concept took off helped flatten that learning curve and make it more palatable for its teachers.
“When you (teach virtually) it is the same,” Bushell came to realize. “Just in a different way. For the students, it was their escape … they seemed really active and thankful to be there.”
So, while passing props to a fellow performer may not have been possible, Bushell said he and his peers quickly figured out green screens and Snapchat filters.
The company actually plans to expand its online offerings, buoyed by its unpredicted success during the pandemic for its unique, non-comedy quality. “I found that people (online) are more accepting,” Kinugawa said. “Everyone is extra kind to each other, not as critical.”
We’re not talking stock portfolios here. It’s an open secret that Second City — from management to actors — was lacking in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), especially in creative leadership roles. And the company isn’t hiding from this, even boldly acknowledging it on its web page — along with an emphatic promise to change.
“This was such a white, male-oriented place for such a long time,” said Kinugawa.” And everyone knows that.”
To be sure, though, it’s endemic to much of the comedy industry, acknowledged Ogbonnah. “But (it was) especially true of Second City.”
The company implemented more than a few changes, such as hiring more women in leadership roles, including Heffernan, Julie Dumais Osborne as artistic director of its training centre, production manager Susan Waycik and Parisa Jalili, its chief operation officer.
Those changes haven’t gone unnoticed. “It now feels easier to say what you want,” said Ogbonnah. “I feel more comfortable that if I have a problem I’m not going to be (dismissed.) There’s no fear of being told you’re wrong or you’re the problem. It feels safer now!”
Added Kinugawa, “If Second City were not working on diversity and inclusion, I wouldn’t be here.”
Two’s better than one, right?
In normal times — remember those? — Second City would hone its main stage show for several weeks before adding a separate holiday-themed show. But the opening of its new (yes, temporary) home this week closed that gap.
And while premiering two shows simultaneously may seem ambitious, Heffernan is undeterred. “As long as the offerings are quite different, you’re expanding as opposed to cannibalizing (your audience).”
Bushell agreed. “Audiences right now are very receptive, eager and starved for live entertainment.”
New owners. New digs … eventually
No doubt there was a collective sigh within Second City’s ranks when it found a new buyer earlier this year in a U.S. private equity firm. The infusion of money ensures construction of its new venue on York Street will be completed in late 2022 — though there’s still the issue of suspended supply chains, which makes getting building materials a challenge. And not all of these challenges are pandemic-related. Rideout cites the major storms in Texas, which slowed manufacturing. “That’s where (heating and ventilation) systems come from.”
More importantly, said Jalili, the new owners are buying into Second City’s new mission. “That was a big part in our decision to sell to them,” she said, adding that there were several potential buyers. “They understood our vision and that DEI has to be at every level of our business.”
Second City has managed to weather a storm — that we’re not quite out of yet — by doing what improvisers do: they pivot and adapt. Still, Jalili recognizes the company’s unique position in an industry that has been especially decimated since March 2020.
“We shouldn’t be here, right?” she posited. “There are so many other theatres … that didn’t make it. And we’re the most stable that we’ve ever been.”
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