Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Yikes! I’ve been caught out by The Second City’s Clare McConnell. And I am suitably red-faced.
Let’s start at the very ending. As I close an interview with an artist I’m profiling, I sometimes ask what else I should have asked . . . just to give them the opportunity to add any final thoughts. This is where they might disclose a hidden talent for drumming, a penchant for winged eyeliner or a near-obsessive sushi addiction. Or that George Harrison is their favourite Beatle. Or they are a dual citizen of Ireland. You get the idea. So I ingenuously ask McConnell this question.
For a moment, it’s like she’s up on stage, responding in real time to a fellow improv artist. The question is a gift, which she accepts in her character of larger-than-life comedian . . . and shreds me with by conjuring the interview that could have been: “You should have asked me to say something profound but hilarious to conclude this interview. A real banger of a closing statement,” she deadpans. “This is where I would have done that. It would have been relatable, and everyone would have loved it….if you had asked me that question.”
I laugh out loud. Just for a second, even while appreciating her wit, I wish I had a do-over. Very apropos . . . after all, I am interviewing her about If I Could #Throwback Time, the sketch-comedy revue she is performing on the Second City Mainstage.
Originally from Calgary, McConnell has been a part of the Second City Touring Company for two years, and joined the Mainstage cast in July. “I have so many favourite sketches in this show!” she enthuses. The one that’s making me break the most these days is the Wacky Waving Inflatable love scene I do with Alan Shane Lewis.” She amplifies drily:, “We have fun.” She feels “so lucky” to have had this much time on the Second City stage to try things and push her own boundaries. Although the Second City sketches are comedic, many are satiric or political, and almost all are anchored in a core of emotional truth.
And these sketches come to life and grow into a Second City show through a defined, quasi-scientific and (to hear her McConnell tell it) Sisyphean process. She explains that the actors first improvise their ideas for audiences before creating their scripts. Each day of the rehearsal process, they come in with new premises (scene ideas with a clear point of view.) “We cast whoever we want, try the ideas out in our improv sets, and hope that people find them as funny as we do. Then we watch the tapes of the set to see what worked, what didn’t, do some tweaking, and improvise it again! This goes on for about 11 weeks, until we all lose sight of what comedy even is. Then we show everyone the thing we made and hope they laugh!”
Of course they do… and audiences have an abiding curiosity about the actors’ ability to offer scenes that convey emotional vulnerability while delivering wince-inducing laughs rooted in rueful truths. In her two years at Second City, McConnell has performed a range of sketches, many of which mine humour from discomfort. For example, in last year’s holiday show, It’s a Wild, Rowdy Wonderful Life where McConnell performed a scene about a sick mom trying to restore her pre-illness relationship with her daughter. “They end up roasting the s#%t out of each other, and it’s lots of fun,” she recalls. In reality, the scene was based on her dad, who has had a very difficult health journey, and McConnell thought it might be interesting to explore her feelings about it onstage. In retrospect, she is glad that she took the risk. Still, it turned out it was all still a bit too tender, and she was “very ready to put the scene to bed” when the show closed.
Since her training at the Second City (which she famously chickened out of the first time around before returning two years later), she has worked steadily at the Second City, while accruing a growing list of on-screen roles. She has played Eorann on American Gods, Petra on Wynonna Earp, Effie Newsome on Murdoch Mysteries, and – perhaps a little less recognizably – Klingon leader Dennas on Star Trek: Discovery. She credits improv with helping her as an actor and a human being: “I was a pretty serious kid. Because I found improv, I feel sillier as an adult than I ever did when I was little. It’s made me a better listener and a braver speaker.” This is a huge advantage in auditions. “If I lose a line, my improv brain kicks in and plays ball for me. It’s tough to ad-lib in Klingon though!” she quips.
For now, audiences can catch McConnell in the retro, 80s-tinged If I Could #Throwback Time until January. It’s almost needless to say that it’s wildly varied and hysterically funny. Meanwhile, I re-play the interview and mourn the question unasked, which would have yielded that “real banger of a closing statement”. It would have gone right here.
News You Can Use
What: If I Could #Throwback Time, directed by Rob Baker丨Assistant Director: Kirsten Rasmussen丨Music Director: Jordan Armstrong丨Stage Manager: Seann Murray
Cast: Tricia Black, Alan Shane Lewis, Clare McConnell, Natalie Metcalfe, Sharjil Rasool, Chris Wilson
Who: Audiences 19 years of age and older
When: Extended through February, 2020; running time: 2 hours (including intermission)
*FREE fully-improvised third act following the final performance of the evening
Where: The Second City Mainstage, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: secondcity.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019