Is laughter the best social medicine? The Second City’s Dionna Griffin-Irons asserts, “yes!”

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Yes, people, laughter can change the world. And the more varied its source, the broader its reach — and the more compelling (and lasting) the change.

Just this week, we heard of the case of a group of young black men who, alone of the patrons in a Toronto restaurant, were asked to pre-pay for their meals. No laughing matter, this incident made headlines coast to coast. Why? Because it happened in a diverse, multicultural city in the year 2018, and proved (again) that we have nothing to feel smug about. There is always a need for all of us to speak more, listen more, and share more. Stories from tellers with different origins and experiences yield new perspectives and insights. And if those stories are funny . . .  and we share laughter as well as ideas, they might just prove a tonic for bigotry, distrust and blinkered perceptions.

Dionna Griffin-Irons, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, The Second City Chicago

Well, this weekend, Toronto can listen and laugh. The Second City Toronto’s 5th Annual Diversity Weekend offers three days packed with stories, courtesy of an array of hilarious tellers. And if such an event strikes you as superfluous in what some call the most multicultural city in the world, Dionna Griffin-Irons, The Second City’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion (who is also a writer, speaker, advocate and Second City Detroit alumnus) would say instead that it is a solid start, but there is much work still to do. Through initiatives like Diversity Weekend, Second City is pursuing the goal of greater inclusion and representation in the comedy world.

From May 5 to 7, Toronto audiences can participate in workshops and experience performances. This year, the Diversity Showcase performers include Kweendom, an all-WOC troupe, Brandon Ash-Mohamad, TallBoyz2Men, Halal Rainbow, Hoodo Hershi and Vira Burmenkoin. The Weekend culminates in the highly anticipated Bob Curry Fellowship Audition on Monday, May 7th. According to the Second City, “the fellowship’s mandate is to seek out new voices in the city’s multicultural population.” Not only does the recipient get the glory of training at the foremost comedy training centre in North America, but they do it for free. Fans of The Second City’s many graduates (who are too many to name here) know just how life-changing — and by extension, society-altering–an opportunity this is.

There is likely no one more vocal or tireless in creating avenues for greater access than Ms Griffin-Irons herself. She knows the value of mining one’s past and leveraging the bottomless resource that is one’s own history. Often, one’s own past can expose a powerful voice to share stories and promote change. In 2015, she gave a compelling TEDx Talk at the University of Chicago called “How I Improvised in Prison – and Found My Voice.” In it, she relays the irony of the best day of her life coinciding with the worst day of her life – and compellingly describes all that ensued as a result. Ms Griffin-Irons herself offers workshops, and she remains an outspoken advocate for programming and initiatives like Diversity Weekend that open new and additional avenues to the world of sketch and improv. “We’ve seen the community empowered to tell their stories and share their narratives by starting groups and building more outreach,” she observes. “This kind of ripple effect is exactly what you want to see with the work –everyone get bitten by improv.” The result of that “bite” is usually infectious: first laughter, then greater understanding and appreciation of what has become more “unique” . . . and less “other.”

The weekend and fellowship named for alumnus Bob Curry arose from Second City’s Diversity and Inclusion Outreach Program, which Frances Callier began in 1992 as a part of The Second City Training Centre and has grown steadily. Under Ms Griffin-Irons’ leadership it expanded to a full-year program in 2002, eventually evolving into Diversity & Inclusion in 2016. The program aims to develop new talent by attracting exceptional performers and writers, teaching workshops at colleges and organizations, and building new community partnerships. What compelled the Second City to establish this program? “We witnessed there was a smaller percentage of diverse comedians of color studying and performing improvisation and sketch comedy,” she notes. “In an effort to increase access, we initiated outreach workshops to bring new voices to reflect the multicultural voices of the world in the art form.” Those voices responded in eager droves. In the United States, Second City has experienced an increase in audition submissions, a steady growth in enrollment, and increased community usage of improvisation outside of the theatre world. In Toronto, the company is preparing to celebrate its 5th-year Diversity Weekend programming, and accelerate the fellowship from a bi-annual to a now annual program. Clear-eyed and playing the long game, the Second City is looking forward: “increased representation on our stages is key, along with the goal to foster greater engagement in the teen and youth program.”

In the meantime, mere days remain before one of Ms Griffin-Irons’ favourite events of the year. Though based in Chicago, she enjoys meeting the Toronto community during Diversity Weekend: “It always feels like extended family and friends gathering –not your typical meet and greet.”  Asked who should attend Diversity Weekend, she is unequivocal: “There’s something for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. In the end, it’s more about stepping out of your comfort zone, seeing and hearing new comedy and giving yourself permission to try and learn something new using improvisation. Laughter is the best social medicine.”

So consider coming down to The Second City this weekend to listen and improvise a little. If you do, you’ll almost certainly learn more about your neighbours and yourself. And let fly some of that magic laughter that changes our world.

News You Can Use

Image courtesy of The Second City

What: The Second City’s 5th Annual Diversity Weekend

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: May 5–7, 2018

Where: The Second City Training Centre, 99 Blue Jays Way, 3rd Floor, Toronto, ON 

Schedule and Info: SecondCity.com

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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