Beyond the Pale

In the spring of 1992, Second City owner Andrew Alexander faced a dilemma. One night someone asked the cast to improvise a sketch based on the LA riots. “Our actors, who were all white, had no idea what to do,” says Alexander. “It became apparent that we needed to expand our diversity.”

He enlisted the aid of black performers–first Aaron Freeman, then Frances Callier–to launch a community outreach program on the south and west sides. The idea, says Alexander, was to bring improv classes to high schools as a way to “encourage young people” to make the trip up north to the Second City Training Center in Old Town. Callier had made that trip from Austin as a teenager, but she was the only African-American in her class.

“I’ve had private conversations with people of color not feeling comfortable at North and Wells–they felt they had to whitewash themselves,” says Callier, a 16-year Second City veteran who now heads the company’s LA training center. “But the art form does not have color or gender. Improvisational theater is a tool: it gives actors structure and a huge opportunity to create their own material from what they know.”

Alexander says he’s taken that idea to all the Second City theaters: Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and, opening next month, Las Vegas. (Yet another theater is planned for Cleveland later this year.) The Detroit cast is about 60 percent African-American, and the Vegas spot will feature Detroit’s “best-of” show. But it’s Toronto’s ensemble–a cross section of Asians, Latinos, blacks, and whites–that Alexander sees as a template for the future.

Though his efforts to encourage diversity began in Chicago, the company here has proved to be a tougher case. The improv scene has deep roots on the north side, and its culture has remained overwhelmingly white. Many of the city’s young black comedians honed their skills in stand-up clubs instead of the Second City or ImprovOlympic. “We came to the conclusion we needed to be in the community,” Alexander says.

He began to scout sites for a new theater in a black neighborhood, but says, “this took a lot longer than I expected. We had a deal in Hyde Park, and another one on the west side, but they fell through.” In 1998 he and Callier were looking at a storefront down the street from Dorothy Tillman’s Third Ward office near 47th and King. When Tillman caught wind of their plans, she decided to make Second City’s south-side outpost a cornerstone of her Tobacco Road redevelopment project along 47th Street. Tillman hopes Tobacco Road will become a tourist attraction, with restaurants and blues, jazz, and comedy clubs.

Tillman encouraged Alexander to apply for federal empowerment zone funds, and Callier eventually secured a government grant of $890,000. The company has its eyes on a building for its 250-seat theater and a school–which it hopes to open within the next two years–but Alexander says this sale is still in negotiations. He’s already sunk more than $50,000 into the project, and he plans to commit another $100,000 to $150,000. “If it’s not this building,” he says, “it will be another.”

Alexander says the company will hand over a 50 percent stake in the south-side operation to the African-American performers and teachers who will make it succeed. He identifies them as “10 to 12 people who’ve worked with the Second City in the last 15 years,” including Callier, Claudia Wallace, and Angela Shelton.

“This is not a situation in which we are just saying ‘Second City is coming to the south side,'” Alexander says. “This is an investment and a partnership with the community. There will be African-American ownership and management along with the talent.” He hopes the south-side training center will put new performers on the 47th Street stage.

Callier says, “This is about providing jobs and finding the next Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, or Richard Pryor.”

Almost a decade after that embarrassing night following the LA riots, Alexander says he is finally closing in on his goal. “This is a total commitment on our part to diversify our casts. We are not making some token gesture to the Bronzeville district. We plan on being around for a very long time.”

–Sean Neumann

Such a Deal!

Their publisher had told them the figures were misleading, but that didn’t stop the folks at the Second City from constantly checking the sales rank of their new coffee-table book on Then about a month ago, Sheldon Patinkin, Second City’s artistic consultant and the primary author of The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater, noticed something odd. Amazon was selling the $45 book for only $5. He immediately got on the phone.

“I got a message from Sheldon, and I thought, ‘That’s insane,'” says Second City producer Kelly Leonard. “I went upstairs to our owner’s office–Andrew Alexander–and said, ‘Go on-line.’ He said, ‘It’s got to be a mistake.’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And so he said, ‘Buy 500.’

“So I run downstairs, get my credit card out, and start to buy. But right before I click onto it, I think, ‘I don’t know if I should do this.’ And [Alexander] buzzes me on the phone and says, ‘You know, maybe we should call Sourcebooks [the book’s publisher], because if we buy 500, and it’s an error that somehow affects them, that would be a bad political move.'”

Leonard called a PR woman at Sourcebooks, and she didn’t know what to say. “Let me call you back,” she told him. Five minutes later, she was back with the message: “Go for it.”

“I bought 500 books, and Andrew Alexander also bought another 300,” Leonard says. “Lo and behold, I look on [Amazon] the next day, and we’re back up to full price.”

The books–all 800 of them–arrived without a word from anyone at Amazon. And at $5 apiece, significantly less than it costs the Second City to buy copies from Sourcebooks, the theater was able to stock their gift shop and give out free copies at a recent press conference.

One question remains: Is the Second City responsible for Amazon’s recent layoffs?

“Oh my god! We are,” jokes Leonard. “You know, if this is an example of other things that are going on, maybe they’re laying off the wrong people.

“Actually, I bought almost all my Christmas presents this year from Amazon, so I was feeling if anyone deserves to be blessed by the gods of Amazon, it was I.”

–Mark Bazer