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The Second City, named for its Chicago location, opens an outpost in New York

An outpost of The Second City has opened in Brooklyn. Above, the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan skyline are pictured at sunset.
Charly Triballeau
/
AFP via Getty Images
An outpost of The Second City has opened in Brooklyn. Above, the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan skyline are pictured at sunset.

The sketch comedy and improv group, The Second City, is famously named for its location: Chicago. And while some of its illustrious graduates, like Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, have become famous New Yorkers, there's never been an outpost in the First City, until now.

A new facility has been builtin the Second Borough – Brooklyn. The trendy neighborhood of Williamsburg to be exact. On the site of an old record shop and club, the company has built a 200-seat mainstage, a 60-seat second stage, several classrooms, where improv and comedy writing are taught, and a restaurant.

It's not The Second City's first foray outside Chicago: There's been an outpost in Toronto since 1973, which spawned the successful television series SCTV, and other companies have been in Hollywood and Detroit. In addition, there's a touring company that crisscrosses the United States.

The Second City New York in Brooklyn.
Jeff Lunden / NPR
/
NPR
The Second City New York in Brooklyn.

"We know that there is a really great comedy scene in New York," said The Second City's CEO, Ed Wells, "and a demand for comedy-based entertainment, but there is no one doing what we do."

With the closing of several clubs in New York during the pandemic, he felt there was an opportunity. "I mean, New York is the home of Saturday Night Live, right?," Wells explained. "Saturday Night Live and The Second City have had a relationship since Saturday Night Live started. ... Its very first cast was filled with Second City alumni from, you know, John Belushi to Dan Aykroyd to Gilda Radner."

Other grads include Nia Vardalos, the writer and director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who spent four and a half years with the company in Toronto and Chicago. "It absolutely formed who I am," she said. "You enter an institution that is formidable, and yet filled with irreverence; where you will be rewarded for being a person who doesn't follow the rules. And yet you're getting a paycheck, and you are part of a union."

It's such a good gig, that when Second City opened up the call for auditions in New York, within three days, 1,000 people responded, and they had to cut it off. The New York revue is a mix of improv, new material and some classic sketches from Chicago.

Drew Riley, a graduate of The Second City Conservatory in Chicago is one of the six people who are opening the new mainstage. And the first number – which the company developed over half a year, features something every New York has an opinion about: the subway. "We would ask, you know, 'what's something about New York that you love? What's something about New York that you hate?,'" he recalled, laughing. "And the answer to both those questions with us was the same. And it was the train ... we wanted to honor that."

Jacklyn Uweh, who trained with The Second City in Hollywood, and is part of the first ensemble in New York, said that one of her favorite sketches is a classic free association piece for two actors playing spies that was created by Second City alum Stephen Colbert. The first part of the sketch is written but at a certain point it becomes improv, with input from the audience. "It is the hardest sketch I've ever rehearsed!" Uweh says. (The night I attended, the improv part went on for two and a half minutes, to peals of laughter from the audience.)

One of the most important partners in the show is not onstage. It's Kayla Freeman, the stage manager, who sits on a perch above the stage. With a background in comedy and improv, as well as technical theater, she looks and listens intently while the actors make up their material on the spot, to determine when to call a blackout to end the sketch. "A lot of the time, what I'm looking out for is a big audience laugh or watching the internal games that they're playing and figuring out when that game has resolved itself," Freeman explained. Basically, she said she and the actors "ride the waves together."

Cast member Drew Riley said part of the exhilaration of doing improv is the possibility of falling flat on your face. "It's the reason you go to the circus to watch the acrobats. Right? Because you think maybe they might fall," he said laughing. "But you're thrilled when they don't. You're thrilled when they land the triple somersault. It is a theatrical experience unlike anything else."

The doors of The Second City New York have only just opened but the company hopes they stick the landing for years to come.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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