Second City expands to the first city and sets up shop in Brooklyn

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Second City expands to the first city and sets up shop in Brooklyn
The main stage at Second City’s new 12,000-square-foot home in New York, Jan. 31, 2024. The Chicago improv comedy company hopes a gleaming new outpost in Brooklyn gets New York laughing at itself. (Peter Fisher/The New York Times)

by Kathryn Shattuck

NEW YORK, NY.- From the very beginning of the improv theater Second City, its name made clear that it wasn’t a New York institution and didn’t aspire to be.

But after 65 years, the Chicago-based institution that has strongly influenced modern comedy is opening an outpost Monday in Brooklyn, in what is the First City. It’s a seemingly counterintuitive time to expand. Improv, once a thriving part of the comedy scene in New York, is at an ebb, and the company itself has been through tough times.

Two weeks before the lights were set to officially go up, Ed Wells, Second City’s CEO, showed off its new 12,000-square-foot home on North Ninth Street in Williamsburg even as he acknowledged the headwinds facing the expansion.

There is a 190-seat main stage theater with a wraparound mezzanine and a 50-seat black box theater for student shows. A training center with classes for amateurs as well as a career-track conservatory program. The Bentwood restaurant, named after the chair that Second City actors use onstage, sometimes as a prop.

Wells said that the company was drawn to Williamsburg partly for its demographic mix. “You have a large local population that is looking for entertainment and nightlife and culinary experiences,” he said, noting that it is also popular with tourists. “You’re telling local New York stories that appeal to New Yorkers, but also appeal to the people that are coming to hear New York stories.”

The city’s improv scene shrank during the pandemic when the Upright Citizens Brigade closed its New York theater and training center in 2020; the Magnet and the Pit also scaled back. Lockdowns were one culprit, but the financial model was also called into question. In 2020, Second City faced economic problems as well as new criticism about the company’s lack of diversity and inclusion. In an open letter, company leaders wrote, “We are prepared to tear it all down and begin again.”

When it became clear that Second City would be sold, Stephen Colbert, the CBS late-night host and an alumnus, remembered wishing he could help. “It’s got so much institutional history to it that it was never written down,” he said in a video interview.

Strauss Zelnick, head of the private equity group ZMC, who knew Colbert through CBS, called him and asked, “What do you think of me buying Second City?”

“‘Great, as long as you understand that it’s a theater — it’s not intellectual property,’” Colbert recalled telling him. “ ‘Those people onstage are artists, and you have to do everything to support them.’ ”

In February 2021, ZMC acquired Second City, which also has a location in Toronto.

At Zelnick’s suggestion, Colbert put together an artistic advisory board with what he called a murderers’ row of Second City alumni, including Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Keegan-Michael Key, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Robin Thede. Colbert also joined the company’s board of directors.

“I want to know what you’re planning,” he said, noting that he was aware of the hurdles a new outpost in New York faces: “Maybe they’ll make money, maybe they won’t. That is no never mind to me.”

Zelnick’s commitment to an advisory board “tells you a lot of what you need to know,” Wells said. “It certainly has been my experiences that ZMC are here to provide resources for us to do the things that we want and need to do, without getting in the way or distracting.”

Jen Ellison, the artistic director of Second City, was excited when she learned that the company was expanding into Williamsburg. For a while she had been thinking that “we need to learn from New York, and have New York learn from what we can bring.”

That includes the Process, the almost reverential undertaking by which Second City develops new work. Cast members rotate in and out of revues, and after main stage performances, improvisational material is tested before audiences who choose to stay; the material is then honed according to the audience response. Once a scene is polished enough, it replaces another scene in the revue.

“And sort of like the ship of Theseus, by the end they actually have a completely different revue,” said Ellison, who is directing the opener in Brooklyn. “We are certainly using some of the tools and skills that we have from Chicago. But the New York audience and how they help us shape our material will make it New York.”

Alan Kliffer, the New York artistic director, is working as Ellison’s associate as well as directing NYCO, an ensemble that performs sketches from the huge amount of Second City’s archival material. “We’re trying to think how can we engage our alumni here as well,” he said.

Cast members belong to Actors’ Equity and are paid per a negotiated contract — something of a rarity in the comedy world. Tickets to main stage performances run $39 to $79, and while food and beverages will be served in the theater, there is no minimum drink requirement, as there is in many comedy clubs.

General auditions are held once a year in all three locations, and actors must be graduates of an improv and sketch comedy institution like the Second City Conservatory or the Upright Citizens Brigade to be considered.

The first New York auditions, in May 2023, stirred up so much excitement that they had to be capped after some 800 entries piled up in three days.

“You had so many different people of so many different backgrounds, whether that was cultural or professional or socioeconomic,” Wells said. “We certainly have the most diverse cast we’ve ever had on the stage, but we also have the most diverse pipeline of directorial talent and producer talent that we’ve ever had.”

Yazmin Ramos, part of the main stage ensemble, went to Second City Chicago simply for an acting class — until she learned that Fey had gone there. That steered her to the acting conservatory, a writing program, some teaching and lots of auditioning.

It took her five tries to land an understudy gig.

While she was touring, Ramos was offered the New York main stage position, “which was kind of the ultimate goal,” she said. “It sounds like there was a trajectory, but it could really happen to anyone. What a dream. My 13-year-old self would love this.”

Ramos and her colleague Jordan Savusa were recipients of the Bob Curry Fellowship, which, with the Victor Wong Fellowship, provides tuition-free programs and mentoring to people from diverse backgrounds.

Savusa got his foot in the Chicago door by working in the company’s maintenance department. He is in good company: Colbert started in the box office.

One of Savusa’s favorite memories is rebuilding a sketch that John Candy wrote. “We stayed true to the script, but how we did it was our very own way,” he said. “Took it to a new generation, and it still hits.”

Whether they’ll admit it or not, is there a cast member who doesn’t fantasize about being scouted by Lorne Michaels for “Saturday Night Live”?

“One of the things that’s always important to understand about what we do here is you’re seeing that next generation before they become Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey,” Wells said. “You’re seeing them cut their teeth. You’re seeing them creating every single night in front of an audience, live.”

And then they get plucked up.

By Colbert, perhaps? “More opportunities for young people who want to do comedy, to be able to do improvisation at a high level and turn that improvisation into scripting — well, that’s only good for me,” Colbert said.

And he said Brooklyn, home to artists of many stripes, reminded him of Chicago when Second City was in its early years. “It attracted more than just people who were doing comedy,” he said. “It attracted revolutionaries. And that’s what I hope it becomes. It becomes a hub, not just a club.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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