I am a theatre person: a (currently unpaid) “professional” observer of plays; an obsessive audience member, teacher, coach, consultant, playwright, director, and actor. And Chicago is a theatre town: over two hundred “sidewalk” and commercial theaters, mounting every conceivable kind of theatre, from Shakespeare to radical/political and “all new.” Chicago was dubbed the “Second City” for its once second highest population after New York ( and jeered at as culturally second best to New York). The latter, my more habitual playground, boasts of 40-something Broadway theatres, and anywhere from 100 to 150 off- and off-off-Broadway venues, depending on the time. However you do the math, there is more theatre to see in Chicago than in New York, which has over three times the population. And Chicago theaters and their critics seem to have a much greater affection for new plays. I love it!
Over the years, I’ve fallen into the New York habit for my theatrical indulgences. Chicago is after all that much further away. Before last month, I had not been since 1987. That was when as president of the American Alliance for Theatre in Secondary Education, I joined with Barbara Salisbury Wills, the president of the American Association of Theatre for Youth, to merge both organizations into the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. Wow! That’s 26 years of ignoring some of the best and most original theatre in the world, as well as some great old friends, colleagues, classmates, and relatives who live there. After years of their encouragement, it finally took this summer’s second national conference of the Dramatists’ Guild to tip the scale and lure me back.
Living in Vermont sometime around 1970, when I planned my first high school drama curriculum, I quickly grabbed hold of Improvisation for the Theater, by Viola Spolin, for my guide. Back in the 50’s, her son, Paul Sills, had persuaded her to come put her actor-training theories into practice in Chicago, where he had founded the Compass Players (Think Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and one of my favorite old comedians, Shelley Berman.). When they broke up to go their separate ways to stardom in 1959, Sills founded a new comedy club, which he facetiously named The Second City. That’s only 54 years ago.
Somehow, I had never been to see Second City. Never. I had taught the stuff. I had loved the whole idea of story theatre, and improvisation-based comedy, and audience participation, and what it did for my students. In the early ‘70’s, I laughed heartily at a Cambridge MA variant, a wonderful improv troupe called The Proposition. I knew that the careers of many of our best actors today began at Second City. There are now some 600 alumni: among them, the likes of Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Dan Aykroyd, the Belushis, Tina Fey, Valerie Harper, Linda Lavin, Anne Meara, Paul Mazursky, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Martin Short, David Steinberg, Jerry Stiller, and George Wendt. The ever-evolving Saturday Night Live cast is made up almost entirely of actors trained at Second City. This one improvisational, satirical comedy theatre company was essentially responsible for the subsequent renaissance that led to the vibrant theatre scene in Chicago today. Before that time, there were only a few extravagant commercial houses and the Goodman. Second City is the one that started it all, and it has no doubt had more effect on American comedy than any other single influence. All this just in those 54 years.
And yet … I had never gotten around to going. I’m not entirely sure just why I’d been ignoring it. Maybe it’s because I have a relatively low tolerance for silliness. I love to laugh, but it has to be at more than goofiness for its own sake. I have to recognize myself in it, realize my own goofiness, see myself as laughable, accept and enjoy it. It was a pretty ironic prejudice on my part, since self-recognition seems to be at the core of everything Second City does.. Far from pointless silliness, their comedy skits are laugh-out-loud, sometimes uncomfortably close … revealing … truth-telling, in the best sense of the word.
So if not intolerance for silliness, what was really behind my reluctance to embrace Second City and its offshoots for all these years? Here’s the real truth (I’m always skeptical of statements that begin like that, so beware): I think I’m more than a little afraid of improvisation. Fine for my students. But Me? No! And audience participation? Heaven forbid! I don’t want to be caught out there in public making an ass of myself, not able to think clearly enough to know what to do or say. Now I know the whole idea of improv is to react, to be, to let life happen, to NOT think or plan. But I LOVE to plan, to know where I’m going … to be in control.
Don’t we all? Who doesn’t want to be on top of a situation, in control of our own lives, never at a loss? But don’t we all also recognize on some level that we are NOT in control … never were … never can be? For me, now that I have finally gotten to experience The Second City, that’s what it’s all about. For that matter, it’s what all good comedy is about. Everybody knows how much easier it is to identify questionable behaviors in somebody else than in ourselves. But down deep? … For that matter, isn’t that what all good theatre is about? What a wonderfully safe place to sit safely in control and watch human behavior at its chaotic best.
That evening at Second City was titled “Let them East Chaos,” (My cup o’ tea, right?) It accomplished all of the above and more, helped along by a few drinks and the good company of new friends I had met on the airport van that morning. This hugely talented cast of six, some of whom have apparently already been tapped for SNL, provided a terrific combination of belly laughs and moments of personal insight. I didn’t recognize a single face among them. But as they begin taking their places on the American Stage and in film, none of us could help but think that we soon would. And then we’ll all be claiming, “I saw them when …”
But it was the capper of the evening that made me fall in love with the place for good, and buy the T-shirt. Following their traditional framed evening of semi-prepared skits built on shout-outs from the audience, the company usually comes back for another unpredictable half-hour of completely unplanned material. But this was to be a special treat night: They made us all promise to put away cameras and recording equipment. And then, shuffling quietly out from the wings in his crumpled canvas hat, came none other than Paul Simon. He’d just happened to be in the neighborhood and was spotted in the audience. They brought him out a chair, shoved a guitar in his hand, and in grand Second-City style, said “Do anything you want.”
Now you have to understand just what kind of impact this had on me. When my wife and I moved into our first house in 1966, the first thing we bought for it was one of those big old stereo consoles that used to be required for good living room music. Okay? So the first record we bought to play on it was Simon and Garfinkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” I still have the vinyl, played I’m sure many hundreds of times. So this particular appearance felt like a personal gift aimed just at me.
Simon fiddled around for a while, chatting and tuning, and then fell into maybe 12 bars of “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” after which the company gave life to Julio and Mama Pajama and the Queen of Corona in a hilarious, off-the-wall skit. Their follow-up finale was a much more reflective and introspective riff off of Paul’s (Can I call him Paul now?) brief but beautifully rendered instrumental of “The Sounds of Silence.”
That was it for me!