Archive for Sunday, September 1, 1991


September 1, 1991


Imagine yourself on stage with one or two other actors, in front of an audience thats demands something funny right now.

You have a situation and a lot of training and rehearsing, but you don't have a script. You're on your own. Seems scary.

But a lot of performers love to work that way, and many of them flock to the premier institution of improvisational comedy Chicago's Second City.

"When you're improvising, you're being doubly creative," said Joe Keefe, the director of the Second City National Touring Company, which will perform Thursday at the Kansas Union Ballroom. "It allows you to be a creative power, where you're both performer and playwright.''

The Second City performance is a co-production of Student Union Activities and the Kansas University Concert Series.

THE SECOND City tradition began in 1959, when a group of agitated University of Chicago graduates congregated to perform topical comedy. Among the early members of Second City were actors Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris, "The Graduate" director Mike Nichols and writer and director Elaine May.

Expanding on improvisational techniques from acting school, the improvisers would take situations suggested by the audience and turn them into something funny, preferably with a beginning, middle and an end.

The Second City club became so popular it produced three separate companies, a touring group and a school. And as its graduates gained fame in film and television, more and more aspiring actors were drawn to the technique.

PERHAPS THE pinnacle of Second City's influence came in the 1970s, when shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" took the spirit of Second City sketches to a nationwide audience. John Belushi, Martin Short and Bill Murray are all Second City veterans. Belushi performed as Truman Capote to SCTV veteran Joe Flaherty's William Buckley in a famed sketch, according to Bob Woodward's book "Wired.''

But the roots of Second City in intellectual, topical comedy remain, according to Keefe.

"One of the rules we follow is that the characters must be at least as intelligent if not more intelligent than you are," Keefe said in a recent telephone interview from Chicago. "Part of your job is to be at least as up on current events as the audience.''

IN THEIR performances, Second City performers use both set and improvised sketches. Occasionally, an actor would pose as a famous figure, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, and field questions from the audience.

But no matter what gets thrown at the actors, Keefe wants them to stay within the parameters of the sketch they're creating.

"If you're in a taxi, you have to stay in the taxi and be in a taxi," he said. "A stand-up comic can talk about being in a cab, but he's not actually in the cab. You have to deal with the situation as it's given, and you have to stay in the situation.''

In rehearsals, Keefe's cast practices improvising, and if a sketch doesn't go well he said he gives the players a chance to do it again.

"I think we offer constructive criticism," he said.

Keefe started with Second City as a performer in 1983 and became a director in 1986. Many of his compatriots have skipped to better-paying acting jobs. But he said he prefers the creative freedom Second City offers actors.

"One guy who started with me was Dan Castallena,'' Keefe said. "He left to go on `Tracey Ullman' and he's the voice of Homer Simpson. So he's been in two big-hit shows, but now he doesn't really have the creative freedom he had with Second City. It's a trade-off you can make for money.''

The Second City National Touring Company will perform at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday at the Kansas Union Ballroom. Tickets are available at the SUA office and the Murphy Hall Box Office.

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