Signature sketch show has launched many careers

During David Razowsky’s orientation sessions at The Second City’s Los Angeles training center, it was common for the former artistic director to remind students about the difference between training center and Mainstage alumni.

“Any training center graduate masquerading as a Mainstage alum in the outside world could potentially get blackballed by Second City,” warns Razowsky, a ’93 SC Mainstage player who performed alongside such notables as Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

While training center actors are those neophytes reared in the SC style of comedy, Mainstage alums represent a select group of six to 12 thesps selected each year to write and perform the signature sketch show at the famed comedy institute’s Chicago or Toronto venue. Like an exclusive comedic papacy that can trace its roots back to such legendary members as Alan Arkin, Del Close and John Belushi, the Mainstage company numbers around 900 since SC’s founding in 1959 — a small number next to the thousands who have passed through SC’s other programs.

Many sketch actors will wait years and work odd jobs at SC along their path toward Mainstage. After all, Mainstage is the farm that produced such “SNL” greats as Bill Murray, Mike Myers and Tina Fey.

“A Second City actor doesn’t choose Mainstage; rather Mainstage chooses them,” explains Alexander Burke, a former SC Touring Company (aka Tourco) musical director.

Whether an actor is schooled in improv at SC or another local comedy school in Chicago, the trick for an aspiring Mainstage player is to audition and land a spot in one of SC’s four Tourcos, from which all Mainstage thesps are recruited.

Mainstage scenes are often created organically through improv, as when Colbert pitched the “Maya” sketch to his fellow 1994 cast members about a white man who is treated like a black woman in his Southern hometown. “Building it during rehearsal, we automatically knew the parts we were going to play,” recalls Razowksy, who also starred. “One actor figured they were going to play Colbert’s love interest and another was going to portray the bigot.”

Such classic material is archived and performed routinely by Tourco members, who often double as Mainstage understudies during their tenure.

With an annual salary of $30,000 a year, “Mainstage is the only theater in the U.S. where you can make a legitimate living doing improv,” Burke points out.

In addition to earning Actors’ Equity benefits, Mainstage players get their names placed on the theater’s legendary marquee.

Last year, Mainstage shows accounted for 44% of SC’s $32 million revenue. And though the theatrical biz in metro areas has always been a gamble, SC has remained afloat with inexpensive ticket prices ($16-$25), few dark nights, minimal ad expenses and no monthly rent in Chicago.

“What some Off Broadway productions spend on advertising, we don’t spend on an entire production,” boasts SC exec veep Kelly Leonard, who oversees theatrical ops.

More than inclement weather or bad reviews, the most serious competition SC faces is from successful Chicago sports teams.

“The Bulls killed us during their championship years in the ’90s,” says Leonard. “The suckiness of the Cubs has also helped us survive for 50 years.”

TIP SHEET

What: The Second City 50th Anni

When: Dec. 11-13

Where: 1616 N. Wells St., Chicago

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