Laying Claim to Fame or Acclaim

I am careful not to claim students that have transcended to fame. The reason for this is that I don’t believe that there is a causal relationship between my training program and the success of the individual. I think it is fine to state that this person or that person did study or perform at my theatre as a matter of interest and commercial appeal, but I am very very careful about the wording, for I will not suggest that my training or training program is the reason for their success.  Because it isn’t. It is, in addition, not the reason for an individual’s lack of professional success. It is merely an influence in the journey along the way. Powerfully, and merely, an influence.

If you claim a causal relationship between someone’s training and someone’s success, then you must also claim the causal relationship between someone’s training and someone’s LACK of success. Another way of saying this is that you must count the misses along with the hits. You would be saying that someone’s success is, in large part, BECAUSE they trained with your school. You are claiming accountability of a person’s success as a RESULT of your training. Then, if that is the case, you are forming a causal relationship between your training and your success rate, and those that don’t professionally succeed must be accounted for, as well. For you are truly saying that your training has actual bearing on the success of the individual that gains widespread acclaim, and equal bearing on the individual that does not.

If this were true, and there is, indeed, a causal relationship in this way, then the professional success rate of the average improvisational school is beyond reprehensible. At least 99 percent do not achieve professional success.  If, very lucky, one out of 100 improvisational actors from any given school achieve any kind of professional success, that is, get paid to improvise or act in any way. That number is probably more like 1 in 200. The percentage of individuals that achieve mass notoriety goes down much much much much much more. Let’s say 1 in 5,000, and that would still be very generous. The percentage of people that get famous from the pool of people that study improvisation in any particular school is actually, conservatively 1 in 50,000. In larger schools, it could easily be 1 in 250,000. Now, once again, that’s people who gain mass notoriety, popular fame, from acting or improvisation.

So if you are selling “Stardom”, and tout the celebrities that “make it” as a direct result of studying with you, then that percentage is the direct success rate of your school. “For every quarter of a million people that train with us, 2 will gain fame!”.

“Our training, the training that actually influences someone’s chances of success or failure, is that bad!”

Let’s dismiss notoriety for a moment, and just address the professional definition…. people that get paid.  As I said, generously, 1 in 200. Conservative, indeed. It is probably a much higher number, say, 1 in 500. But let’s say 1 in 200 people become a professional in the field of improvisation or acting and the claim is that it is a direct result of training with a particular school or theatre. 1 person out of 200 students go on to work at a professional level.

Now let’s pretend you are not an improv or acting school, but instead you are a medical school. Let’s say that your success rate is the same. Out of every 200 medical students that come to study medicine at your school, 199 of them fail to become professionals….doctors. Your training results in only 1 out of 200 students that become professionals in the medical industry. Or let’s say it’s lawyers, or engineers. You would have a TERRIBLE medical school. Or law school. Or engineering school, and it could literally be dangerous to study there. Only one out of 200 students actually go on to become doctors, the rest do not. “1/200th of our students become lawyers!” Your reputation as a learning institution would be awful.

But in that medical school, let’s say there is a “break-out” person that becomes a famous doctor, and this doctor actually publishes a book or is responsible for some other medical wonder and gains notoriety. One. But hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people did not become famous doctors in your medical school, and a couple of hundred didn’t even make it to being doctors.  I would say that you should be put out of business, certainly not boasting about your one extremely rare professional success.

But back to the less life-threatening improvisation school.

Is it more likely that your improv school is actually NOT a causal factor in that person’s success, but instead, one of many schools of training that influences a person that already has a propensity toward performing in the first place. And that out of all of those people that attended all of those schools, the professional and famous one’s talent emerged and grew and evolved through ALL of the training and performing experiences that they exposed themselves to.

And there’s a greater chance that your school is a magnet for people that already have a leaning toward a successful if not famous career, and that you provide a valuable piece of the puzzle for that person’s journey and growth along the way.

If each school, including my own, is merely a magnet, then is training completely irrelevant? Is it a ruse to merely attract already talented people and play a numbers game of successful students thereafter?

Absolutely not. The value of the exposure, training, and performing in various schools of acting and improvisation, though, is more evidence than anything that one philosophy cannot form this singular causal proclamation to an individual’s professional success. It is many different factors, including intelligence, upbringing, world-view, awareness, AND training.

Now let’s take a more specific look at the training and actually examine its authentic causal effects. Chicago, for example is the birthplace and epitome of contemporary improvisation, with New York and Los Angeles and Toronto fast on its heels. Let’s look at Chicago, because I know it best. This model is applicable wherever, though.

Let’s examine the training necessary to perform, for example, on the Second City MainStage. I have directed a lot of MainStage shows, and have a thorough understanding of what it takes to thrive there. What it takes is a great many influences from both training and performing, along with life, itself.  No one school is sufficient to fully train for a position there. As a matter of fact, as a director, I have had to compensate for actors that have relegated their training to only one or two of the many schools of study and performing available to them in Chicago. The reasons for this are both pragmatic and, I’ll say, cultural.

Let’s look at some of them.

Let’s first take a look at the basic skill sets required or at least highly desired to be a performer on Second City’s MainStage.   What are they?

I’ll list some.

  1. Improvise. You must certainly be a good improviser. But what kind of good improviser? All kinds of good improviser.
  2. Act. Yes, indeed, you create the role and that’s fun and now you will be doing it 8 times a week for about 8 months. Less fun. Can you act?
  3. Write. You must write your own show. You must be able to write comedy.
  4. Collaborate. This is an ensemble of people. Do you know how to create with an ensemble? You would have to know how to do that.

This is a broad, basic list of this extensive skill set. Any one of the schools in Chicago will NOT provide you fully with all of levels of all of these skills necessary to excel in sketch comedy at Second City.

I will start with my own school.

The Annoyance.
If I had an Annoyance-only trained MainStage actor, I would have to work very hard to reel characters in, for as much as I am proud of our ability to push and have people commit fully to what they are doing, the training tends to create bigger and broader characters. Now this is great a lot of the time, for it is sketch comedy and you do want to possess that ability to create a fierce character range, but not all of the time and certainly not always that big. It takes some effort to bring an Annoyance actor back to some of the more necessary grounded and acted two-person scenes that they will encounter on the MainStage. The “take care of yourself” philosophy of the Annoyance can get in the way of those type of scenes, and leave the other player feeling as if the scene is being railroaded, a bit. I’m always having to encourage an Annoyance actor at Second City to play a little slower and less frenetic and more interpersonal and grounded.

The language of an Annoyance actor becomes an issue, as well. While I’m not making people talk dirtier or weirder at the Annoyance, the shows, with their lack of censorship and the invitation people have to freely create there, pushes the language to an R if not X rated level. This influence often collides with my good friends at Second City and their audience sensibility and often has to be attended to. I have to work to have people still feel free, but also have them realize where they are and how to play to that room.

Married to that is the “Anti-comedy” phase that inevitably happens among young improvisers in smaller, subversive theatres. The rebellion to comedy and against comedy must be turned to the even more courageous and daunting task of actually creating professional comedy once at a place like Second City.

There is also a lack of reps at The Annoyance. (The experience gained from the repetition of doing it).  There are so many different shows a week and so many people that the Annoyance does not afford an actor the necessary opportunity to “get their reps in”, or to perform with enough frequency and volume to hone their skills to Second City’s professional sketch environment. Culturally, this leaves Annoyance actors with a bit of a “rag-tag”, unpolished demeanor that has them scurrying to acclimate in the slicker producer and tech and often, client environments they may encounter at Second City.

IO.
There’s a lot of greatness that comes from long form, and conversely a lot to overcome if that is the primary focus of one’s training. While long form is great for playing nearer ourselves and a bit slower as we find the scene, this can be trying in a world of sketch comedy where, what we are looking for, are ways to “get there quicker” and “hit it harder”. I’m constantly attempting to encourage long form actors to attack their scenes and make faster choices. Long form encourages an “easing in” to scenes that a sketch audience has less tolerance for.

Lack of character range becomes another issue for a typical IO performer. At IO, we are encouraged to follow the philosophy of playing “near ourselves” and “to the top of our intelligence”, and “slow comedy”, which are absolutely fine qualities, but certainly not always the best overriding philosophy when it comes to sketch. Good sketch requires good VARIETY, with a combination of super smart and super stupid and silly and substantive and slow and fast,etc.  And it requires a variety of characters.  A character range. This is a skill set that is difficult to magically develop overnight, and often takes a back seat in long form improvisational training. The devastating consequences of this shows up the most when people who center their training in long-form audition for Second City, and attempt to create, suddenly out of nowhere, the character range necessary to do sketch comedy there.

Another detriment in focusing on long-form, only, is the evolving and transforming continuous nature of long-form, with its edits and callbacks and tag-outs and self-reference and fluidity. As a result of these techniques, it is often difficult for an IO improviser to “package” the comedy into scenic product. Even that sentence may scare a typical long form improviser: “Package the comedy into scenic product”, but that’s exactly what sketch comedy demands, and it doesn’t stop at Second City.  That is sketch on television, as well, and carries even more of that “product and packaged”, mentality. I have observed that the process-oriented, continuous, ever-connecting nature of long-form improvisation works against that in the performance and in the development of sketch material.

Culturally, there is sometimes what I call “cool-move” residue that an IO actor brings into the Second City Sketch environment. What I mean by this is that IO often has a student-saturated audience base which may identify the choices made in improvisation in a meta, “that was a cool move they made in that scene”, kind of way. They often separate and label improvisational technique in a way a normal audience wouldn’t.  An insulated improv-based audience provides a more friendly “insider” environment for the show. This type of audience will constantly reinforce this type of performance as they provide a degree of affirmation and protection for the show and the performers that is not afforded them with a far more commercial and “Improv-uninformed” audience.

Second City.
Second City is ironically unable to provide all of the education, training, and performance acumen that is necessary to currently perform at the level sought by Second City. And ya know what, Second City knows that and that is great that they do. Second City is an insular institution that is full-bodied in its training, but creates a limited comedic sensibility by nature of what it is. Hard to explain, really, but I’ll give it a try. Second City is often accused of being institutionalized by the improv and theatre community in Chicago and elsewhere, and is often seen as having safer and more homogenized comedic sensibilities. It is accused of being too safe with its comedy and not taking enough chances. Now things like this have been said to me directly or around me and I am quite often the director of a Second City show while that kind of conversation is being bandied about. Often right in front of me! “The shows are too safe there”, might be said directly to me, or “Second city is so afraid to take chances!” may be said in my presence or directly to me, as well. It is as if the assumption is that it is fine to say that to me because surely it is not I who is holding the comedy back; it is some other force that is doing that. Presumably, the producers, or perhaps the owners, they suppose. The assumption is that there is some higher entity repressing the work and that I, as the director, and certainly the actors, are victims to this censored oppression. The truth of the matter is that there is no “the man” at Second City. There really isn’t. There is no higher producing entity or executive power censoring or repressing the work.  As a matter of fact, the owner of Second City usually advocates for darker, more subversive comedy. For that is Andrew’s sensibility. The producers do, as well, at least when it comes to the resident stages there. The MainStage and the ETC, the lifeblood of the Second City brand, are always encouraged to create freely by the producers and owners there. Yes, there is certainly close scrutiny of corporate content offerings from Second City Communications (Bizco), and certain content requirements for touring companies and occasionally shows at regional theatres,  but as far as those resident stages go, they are absolutely not influenced in any way by the producers or the owners of Second City. Those processes are held sacred, and the creators are fully and wholly protected and trusted with the content as of January, 2014, when I am writing this.

So how does this perception come about? I know I’ve written about it before but I think it’s always worth a revisit… particularly in regard to discussion of training schools and philosophy influences. It is purely and organically created within the walls of Second City by all parties involved in the creation of shows, especially the audience. Different audiences in the world have different sensibilities, and the function or job or responsibility of the performance or show is to entertain THAT audience. That is the function. Entertainment for that audience. Unfortunately, people who judge comedy from the inside judge it according to their own presumably evolved tastes in comedy and do not often take into account how THAT show is doing for THAT audience.

So the audience at Second City is what it is. It is a 50% tourist audience that represents a wide range of age, gender, and geography. They are truly from everywhere, mostly in the US, and represent a wide spectrum of beliefs and sensibilities.  As an artist creating there, the responsibility of a Second City show is to first and foremost make that audience laugh. Secondarily, it is to push the limits, a bit, or to say this and make a statement about that. It is also a desire to remain within the context of Sketch Comedy, that is; mainly unrelated scenes and songs and monologues.  It is a goal at Second City to provide an adequate quota of social and political satire, whatever that is. Finally, it is an additional goal to invite them into a slightly subversive or touchy or thought-provoking world that pushes a button or is a bit shocking or a bit offensive, but not enough-so to alienate them from the primary objective: to make them laugh.  In order to make them laugh they have to be “with you” enough to gain your trust with the point of view that you wish to gain comedic empathy with. Laughter, after all, is an evolutionary social phenomena, and the ideas of inclusion and trust and empathy are key. The moment the audience feels alienated, they will cease laughing. The moment they cease laughing at Second City, the primary. objective. is. terminated.

So we push and tug and make people think and shock them and even offend them, but we work hard not to alienate them.  Every theatre does this to a degree, but the scope of what is deemed as alienating or not alienating differs. Thus we present different comedic sensibilities that are required to make different audiences laugh in different places.  Much of the material presented on the MainStage of Second City would seem out of place or fall flat at The Annoyance, for example, and much Annoyance material would alienate a Second City audience in its theme or language. There is no way you could present an IO Harold or other long-form as the offering for the product-oriented needs of the Second City MainStage, either.  None of the comedy in or from these places is better or worse or more “sold out” than any other. It is merely different. The truth is that the comedy produced by Second City is quite brilliant. It takes very intelligent people to make it to that stage, and very intelligent people are thinking quite intelligently as they create shows there.

So how does it even get that perception, once again? It is largely self-regulated by the audience at hand. Those people are 325 people that come 8 nights a week all year around to see the Second City experience. Those people have a different comedic taste than an improviser or comedy nerd or a critic or an agent or a producer, even.  They are who they are, and while one is developing the material, they are the ones constantly providing the feedback for the material. And laughter is key.

Making the audience laugh is the primary objective.

So if an actor puts up some surreal piece about “fucking dogs” as a metaphor for the “economy”, and finds that night after night of trying that scene in front of an audience on the Second City MainStage that the audience doesn’t get it or are repelled, then what do they do? The audience is provided no education or invitation to understand The Dog Fuck Economy Scene and it gets no laughs for 6 minutes night after night after night after night. Everyone in the cast, and I as the director, personally thought it was very funny when it was first presented as an idea, and have worked on making it acceptable to the audience as much as we can. But in the end, it’s a “no go” as far as the audience is concerned. So what do we do? Do we hold to our guns and keep that Dog Fuck Scene in the show? No producer is telling us not to, nor is the owner of Second City. Friends watching the improv sets think it is smart and weird and funny, as well, and they tell me and the actors that in the bar later.

Does it stay or do we cut it?

We cut it. And why do we really really WANT to cut it? Is it because we want to “bend” or “give up our vision” or

“compromise”?

No.

It is simply because we want that audience to laugh and to have a good time, and we don’t want a hole in the show for 6 minutes a night (an excruciatingly long time on stage) where no one is laughing. A scene that is not funny is not within our primary mission. Our main goal IS to make that audience laugh, not alienate them. In that way, it is a self-censored scenario. But I don’t call it censorship. I call it doing a good job.

In addition, most intelligent and reasonable actors who have written and are performing the alienating scene don’t want it in the show, either. They realize how much it damages the show and drops the energy. They realize they have to “recover” after that scene because it is dead in the water and they understand how it affects other scenes that follow, and their fellow performers and friends who have to do the scenes that follow, as well.  More than any of this, it’s just not a good time to not get laughs in a scene. For the MainStage, keeping that scene would mean not getting laughs Eight times a week, for 8 months to a year in the show’s run. No reasonable person would want that.

If I were hired to direct at Disneyland, I would adjust accordingly. If I direct an Annoyance Theatre show, I adjust.

And so does a professional improviser and sketch comedy writer and performer.

So all of this is to say that any up-and-coming performer in the world of comedy in Chicago can’t provide themselves with the most thorough, varied, and sophisticated education in comedy necessary to perform at Second City by locking themselves exclusively in the Second City system. I know the irony of this, for it seems that someone that immerses themselves entirely in the Second City culture would absolutely know the comedic sensibilities necessary to perform there. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Because part of realizing the degree of comedy necessary to stand out there is to have a thorough understanding of it ….and then to fight it. And fighting it means knowing what you are fighting, and growing your comedic sensibilities elsewhere. The great people with wickedly funny and cynical and ironic and hateful and razor sharp biting instincts have a great deal of external influences that they bring to the work. This is not only personally, through life experience or through traditional education, but also through the weathered street smarts of different comedy writing and performing everywhere. In short, a Second City-only trained sketch writer/performer does not develop the scope or edge necessary to bring to the stage the sophistication of comedy that is required at Second City. They are just not savvy enough and they often get eaten alive. They are still too vanilla for the stage there.

So now what if an actor in Chicago is so fortunate enough to train at IO, The Annoyance, and Second City? Surely that would cover it. Well, among the most well-rounded Second City actors I have worked with, even more is required. Other skill sets come to mind.

  • The ability to be yourself on stage. To hone your own stage persona in front of an audience.
  • The ability to execute concise, slick, and professional introductions to games, shows, and scenes.
  • Game playing.  The ability to play improv games.
  • Maintaining a scene over time and keeping it fresh with consistent acting

None of the three schools discussed, The Annoyance, Second City, or IO, in my opinion, can fully train you to the utmost degree in all of those areas. Yes, you have to be yourself to introduce stuff in all three. You may introduce shows at The Annoyance or host a Jam or get a theme suggestion at IO, all as your “you” persona, but I find that there is often a deficit in those areas in many Second City company members, still.  It is indeed a skill set to be engaging as yourself in front of an audience, and to be able to introduce or explain a scene or a game or a set in a slick, somewhat charming, somewhat funny, and comprehensible manner. Often it is assumed that this skill set is a given. It is not. I  have seen so many people fumble and tumble around introductions and game-gets and scene set-ups that it’s astounding. In addition, the game playing alone is often shoddy. Many improvisers at this point have not yet learned that playing an improv game with full commitment and integrity is actually the “cool move” to execute, as opposed to continuing the monologue that “short-form is bullshit” and “I hate doing short-form” and just generally using the words “short-form” a lot.

Quite often, depending on the path that the improviser has taken, playing improv games may have been dismissed as unimportant or a necessary evil to merely endure. Little thought is given to them as they may have to do a game set here and there or a Dream before a long-form or a Freeze Tag at the end of the night. By the time the game playing needs to be at the Second City professional level, the learning and commitment has often not been seriously attended to. Where can one learn those valuable skill sets?  Try Comedy Sportz, Boom Chicago, or a Second City NCL Cruise ship. All three also carry the added benefits of being placed in the fire of performance repetitions, and with the latter two, the sketch comedy acting consistency necessary to tour or be a company member at Second City.

Take all of this and put it together, along with the aforementioned intangible aspects of genetics, upbringing, education, experience, and world-view, and it becomes ludicrous to claim anyone’s success for anything. To do so is the erroneous logic trap of using Selective Reasoning to it’s most heinous degree.  I can only claim that it is lovely that so many talented people have been so nice as to have visited our stage or school in the first place.

I can further only hope that our influence has supported, enlightened, and informed them on their journey, wherever it may take them.

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