Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
It’s true: one of the hottest shows in my recent memory took place in a cruise ship lounge. During a family cruise to Bermuda, four members of The Second City Touring Company fashioned indelible characters (Batman villains, toothpaste-obsessed recluses, even a particularly limber air dancer) with rapid-fire wordplay that they improvised entirely from the indiscriminate ideas offered mainly by children ages 6-16. A vivid, participatory, spur-of-the-moment give-and-take was conjured instantly and organically.
In the standing-room-only lounge, people perched on stools, many squished two to a chair. Every inch of floor space was crammed with cross-legged spectators, many holding tinier ones on their laps. All were eager to offer their ideas. They couldn’t get enough, and the hour-long show seemed not long enough. Even more remarkable: every kid was rapt. No small feat, considering the abundance of shipboard activities (not the least of which is the ever-ready self-serve ice cream).
The Second-City artists quipped. They sang. They danced.
They were seriously funny.
Each inventive physical and vocal transformation — and each line of freshly minted dialogue — provoked the mental question, How do they do it? Had they been gifted with comic timing from childhood? Is there a gene for Improv? Can anyone learn to be spontaneous, responsive and funny?
I notionally understood the Improv philosophy of “Yes, and –“. Now, seeing its potent effect on even the youngest of audiences, I wanted to know everything about the training offered at The Second City. Their famed Comedy Sketch Revues date back to 1959, and their über-successful alumni are too numerous to list . . . plus they had unexpectedly enriched my vacation. So I took my curiosity to Kevin Frank, the Artistic Director, Second City Training Centre and Education in Toronto, and also to Aiyana Harvey, a grade 12 student at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts who is a proud alumnus of The Second City Training Centre.
My first question: what is the classroom environment like? Mr Frank describes a Second City class as a “brave and nurturing environment” that helps all participants to “step outside their comfort zone and learn to embrace failure. When there is only support for your choices and no judgement about your results, a person can really take risks and explore the truth about themselves and others.” Ms Harvey’s student experience accords with Mr Frank’s description. She has participated in multiple classes at The Second City since 2014: first in the beginner youth classes, then the audition-only Teen Conservatory class in 2016. She credits the instructional staff with doing an “incredible job” of making the class environment a safe space for the students, no matter their ages. “In my years of training, I was constantly overwhelmed with nothing but acceptance from my instructors, my fellow students and the entire staff.”
“Putting yourself ‘out there’ and trying something new is always a scary thing to do,” she admits, “but I think that the supportive environment of the classes at The Second City make the whole experience so much easier.” While Ms Harvey had acted prior to her classes at The Second City, small-scale classes and Improv (and comedy in general) were new experiences for her: “I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t self-conscious when I started taking programs at The Second City,” she admits. “Understandably, the concept of just getting up on your feet and doing whatever comes to your mind was hard to grasp at first!”
She told herself that holding back would defeat the main purpose that Improv is trying to teach: quick thinking and trusting one’s instincts. This initial leap –plus the consistently supportive environment of each The Second City class — eased her insecurities almost immediately. And in addition to affording her poise and confidence, learning Improv yielded the “charisma skill,” which has eased her interactions with people in general — and strangers in particular.
Part of The Second City’s success in creating an atmosphere conducive to creativity and comfort lies in the company’s firm grasp of its core competency: creating content through the use of Improv techniques. “While it has always been applied to creating award winning Comedy Sketch revues,” explains Mr Frank, “we recognized that the process we created can easily be applied to creating all sorts of content. Our Training Centres focus on teaching our process without judgement. In addition to our core classes of Improv, we have been able to teach corollary classes with our philosophy and approach: Clown for Improvers, Puppetry for Improvisers, Improv for Anxiety, Voice Over for Improvisers, Public Speaking Scene Study, Voice for Stage and so on.”
Ms Harvey speaks enthusiastically about the utility of her classes outside the domain of performance. “The quick-thinking skill goes without saying,” she says. “I have been able to use this in job interviews, when problem-solving in public or at my job, which deals directly with human interaction.” The whole principle of Improv is developing one’s intuition and ability to jump into situations without holding back, and she was surprised to find her confidence in public speaking increased proportionately with her Improv experience. Having portrayed a broad range of characters –and “having successful days and not-as-successful days”–she has known the rewards of a positive audience reaction . . . along with the “less-thrilling feeling” of having a joke fall flat. “I find, however, that this [has] helped prepare me more for other audience-based presentations, and helped me learn how to recover from an embarrassing moment.”
Along with her confidence, her resilience has grown. She pinpoints a pivotal moment during her audition for the Teen Conservatory class when she was able to apply all of the skills she had learned, and experienced the incredible feeling of being able to “breeze” through her audition: “It is a moment that stands out to me because it was my first Improv audition ever, and I was proud to see myself capable of achieving, which really inspired me to continue pursuing the arts.” Having seen her in her school’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone earlier this year, I can say that her skills are already well-honed. Vivacious and statuesque, she disappeared into the persona of the elderly, doddering and trembly-voiced Miss Tottendale.
Ms Harvey. Those artists on the cruise ship. The 6-member cast of The Second City’s sold-out Canada: The Thinking Man’s America show at the Lowville Festival earlier this spring . . . where an artist improvised a laugh-till-you-cry bit entirely from the abbreviated, teen-speak text messages on a kid’s phone! Their unflappability, off-the-cuff wit and boundless creativity have a powerful common root – and that root has huge benefits for everyday interactions and relationships: “The aspect of our training that benefits everyone – and we mean everyone,” Mr Frank avers, “is that learning to approach a situation using an Improviser’s technique gives a person every opportunity to be completely engaged, accept what’s happened and to share how it impacts you.” Good improvisers learn to listen effectively, trust their inner voice and accept other people’s input without judgement.
And that’s not all, adds Mr Frank: “The skills we develop as Improvisers . . . directly improve your ability to recognize patterns, spot anomalies and go deep into the details.” As a result, “you can also use an Improviser’s approach to write an original story, collaborate with others to find a solution, and help peers deal with strong emotions.” In the business world, creativity – which The Second City Works program fosters – is a vital enabler of diversification and longevity. “A company that says ‘We do it that way because that’s the way we’ve always done it’ is doomed to have that etched into its headstone,” says Mr Frank. “At the Second City Works, we share with corporate executive, management teams, marketing experts and business leads the Improv tools that help them stay open to new ideas, accept market changes, and use everything and everyone as a resource. These are the traits of good Improvisers . . . and not surprisingly the same traits of dynamic business leaders.” And frankly, are a nimble thought process and a nose for comic potential needless talents in any field in 2017?
Thanks to Mr. Frank’s and Ms Harvey’s perspectives – plus my own experiences at sea and at the Lowville Festival – I now understand better how The Second City artists can be so freely creative on stage: they have the security of knowing that their partners will respond enthusiastically to their ideas, and that they are in it with – and for – each other. “I would say to any person, regardless of their age ‘when you focus on taking care of someone else’s needs, you will worry less about your own’,” Mr Frank offers. “That’s what Improvisers do on stage. They listen to their scene partner and give them what they want. You don’t have to think. You just have to react. [In turn,] your scene partner will react to you, take care of your needs, and voilà . . . a never-been-told story is created.”
Worried that you lack the knack to create razor-sharp dialogue . . . or sing and move without benefit of script or rehearsal like The Second City performers? Mr Frank and Ms Harvey would beg to differ. All the world’s a stage, reminds Mr Frank: “Everyone improvises every day…because life doesn’t come with a script.”
“So be uninhibited; be inspired. And say YES!”
News You Can Use
What: Education and Training at The Second City
Who: Classes, camps, workshops and professional development for participants 7 years (grade 2) – adult
Where: Toronto Training Centre, 99 Blue Jays Way 3rd Floor, Toronto, ON M5V 9G9
When: Year round, in-person and online
Explore and Learn: The Second City Training Centre
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya