Organically Funny   

By John Bkila


Second City has come a long way from its beginnings as a small Chicago cabaret theatre in 1959. As an international comedic institution, it currently trains thousands of young aspiring actors in improvisation and other acting skills that are proven to be assets to its performers. Its Toronto base opened in June 1973, and has produced such famous Canadian actors as Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short.

The institution not only helps young, aspiring actors spring into the industry, it has also benefited experienced actors like Andrea Martin, who is probably most famous for her portrayals on SCTV and her role of Aunt Voula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Martin, born in Portland, Maine, made her way into Toronto in 1971 after auditioning in New York for the Canadian touring company of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. She joined the main stage in Toronto from 1975 to 1977, eventually becoming part of the cast of SCTV.
Martin says she not only learned how to improvise, but how to expand her unique personality and her own style of being funny. “Honing my skills allowed me to test my own sensibility and not to rely on someone else’s take on certain roles,” she says. Martin is an advocate for any television show that showcases an actor’s personality, such as SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and Kids in the Hall.

To succeed in Second City, she says you have to be organically funny. “I’d tell a young kid who has a knack for being funny, ‘Go audition because it’s an awesome springboard into showcase television.’” If you want an acting career you need to develop your craft, your technique, and to gain that experience is through acting on the stage, says Martin. “The more you do on stage, the better.”
Daniel Shehori is the assistant director and publicist for Second City’s newest improv show Tazed and Confused, and has been there since December 1998. “It’s a wonderful place,” he says. “It’s built for fun and I get paid to do it.”

Performers can take classes in improv, and also have the chance to take part in many of the live shows that are showcased. “The industry wants people with an improv background,” says Shehori. “It’s a definite plus.” He explains that it can become one of the greatest weapons in a performer’s acting arsenal.

Actors are trained to continuously create their own material in a very fixed time-frame. In this sense, performers gain the ability to think on their feet without the crutch of a script. These abilities benefit Canadian performers to such a degree, says Shehori, that when actors add Second City to their resumes, they become sought after by directors that much more. “Directors know that they can get different options from these actors,” he says. 

Improv actors rarely play the same role over and over, or else they risk losing their audience. Second City also helps young actors break into the Canadian film and television industry through the natural connections they make while on the job. “There’s rarely a time when scouts aren’t around,” says Shehori. “They’re always visible.”

The Toronto chapter has become well-known for producing fresh new talent. Just ask Leslie Seiler, who recently joined the cast of CTV’s Comedy Inc. Originally from Halifax, she has been part of the comedic institution since 2002. She began her career with The Second City Touring Company and her portrayal of Loretta Black in Tony & Tina’s Wedding. “It’s fantastic,” she says. “It’s a great training ground.”

Other than teaching her improvisational skills, Seiler says being part of the touring company also taught her how to learn things on the fly both with improv acting and with a script. While on the main stage, she learned how to write a show, put it all together and work with others - lessons, she says, that helped her become part of Comedy Inc. The auditions for the show consisted of learning a sketch, putting it together and performing it within 48 hours. “I walked out of there thinking, ‘I nailed it,’” says Seiler. “Improv skills can help no matter what you’re doing.”

Seiler says she had to use those skills even when she was starring in the Disney movie Twitches Too.  “The director would always say, ‘Oh just throw something in,’ even while we were working with a script,” she says. Seiler says her time at Second City made her more of a natural actor and helped build her confidence. “If I were to forget a line, I know I can get out of it. I don’t panic.”

The success rate of the actors is quite high. “If you think of any big Canadian comedic actor, minus Jim Carey, it’s very likely they came through Second City,” says Shehori. On average the actors that walk through the doors stick around for two or three years and then move on to bigger and better things. “They all end up making it in the field, unless they quit,” he says. “It may not be consistent work, but they’ll pop up all the time.”

Those who do make it big also make it a point to remember their roots. “Martin Short visits us sometimes to do improv shows,” says Shehori. He also says that people aren’t always aware that even some non-Second City alumni drop by to have a little fun. Robin Williams visited in 2006, and Shehori describes the experience as simply amazing. “The nature of him fit in well with the rest of the cast and the audience loved it,” says Shehori. “He wasn’t even a stage hog. He abided by all the rules of improv.”

As for advice to young aspiring actors, both Martin and Seiler say the best thing is to gain experience. “Try to arm yourself with as many different tools as you can,” says Seiler. “Take comedy writing, improv and acting classes, and learn from other people in the industry.” Martin has a different approach: “Just get out there and work.”

Email this article

Print this article