By Marie-Anne Hogarth

When she was 16, Frances Callier drove her blue Chevette from her Austin neighborhood to Old Town. “I’d never heard of this part of Chicago,” says Callier, now 29. “I was a cutup in class, and my English teacher said, ‘You should go over to Second City.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to learn to do stand-up like Eddie Murphy.'”

She found herself in an improv comedy class. “I’m the only African-American in the room and the teacher kind of looks at all of us. There are wealthy kids, middle-class kids, me. We started playing an improv game like Numbers or How Do You Like Your Neighbor? I’d never had so much fun.

“It is that feeling of being high,” she says. “I was so far from the actual point of worrying about being funny, or worrying about what you look like, or how you feel. As soon as we were all bad at improvising, it didn’t matter what background we came from.”

Within a month, Callier was spending every night at Second City, hanging out and watching the sets on the company’s main stage. The manager finally put her to work selling T-shirts and washing glasses. “I could lip-synch the whole show,” she says. “I would go to school, come home and do my homework, and go to Second City.”

After Callier graduated from high school her mother wouldn’t let her major in theater, so she enrolled at Rosary College to study business and sociology. While continuing to work at Second City she started taking more classes at the ImprovOlympic. She performed regularly with a team called Gracie, named after Charna Halpern’s dog.

“I remember the first time we performed, I was a tree for, like, five scenes,” says Callier. “It was that fear of actually performing. I would offer any nonverbal support I could, sounds from the background. But then you realize, oh God, Charna is going to break this up. And it was like sink or swim.”

There were still times when Callier felt out of place. “You get a suggestion: Brecht. And as an African-American from the west side, you go, ‘What?’ Today I can tell you who Bertolt Brecht is and what he wrote. You don’t ever want to look like a fool again.”

Not long after she finished college Callier started the Second City Outreach Program, organizing workshops and intensive classes for women, gays and lesbians, and minorities. “At that time women were not equal parts in the work,” says Callier. “My issue was, how can I begin to address how I can feel as an African-American person onstage without half of the genders being addressed?”

Callier also joined the Second City National Touring Company. “My favorite memories are of turning around in the van on an ass-long ride of 22 hours and finding Kevin Dorff and Matt Dwyer completely naked in the backseat, reading books, and having said nothing for six hours.” They traveled everywhere from ski resorts to New York City to Waco, Texas. “We went to some towns that had no black people. I would turn around to the people in the back and say, ‘I am not getting out.’ But I did….It made me think that there is no place on this earth where I do not have the right to be.

“Only once have I really experienced blatant racism,” she says. “I got a subject like ‘She’s the slave.’ But we came back with a retort and that shut them down.”

Back in Chicago, Callier directed Ike & Tina’s Wedding, a show with a racially mixed cast, at the Bailiwick Directors’ Festival in 1996. “You could make a reference to the Isley Brothers and not only know that it would be understood but that your partner would respond by singing a song, or telling you where they were when they first made out to it,” she says.

The show was intentionally outrageous. For example, Tina, who was played by a man, showed up wearing a new cast in every scene.

It was at her next job–organizing events at the Cultural Center and Navy Pier for the Magic City Family Week-Ends program–that Callier got to know Jonathan Pitts, who was teaching improv to physically challenged kids. They started talking about putting together an improv festival in Chicago that would incorporate the entire scene. “People kept telling us, ‘It’ll never work.’ People we really trusted,” says Callier. “Great producers would say, ‘No, no, no. You could never have an improv festival in a city where there is so much improv.'”

But Pitts and Callier were convinced it could be successful. “We started in my kitchen at my laptop two years ago,” she says. “We came up with three things: to have audience development, industry showcasing, and an educational component with master classes.

“I’ve been a student of the patterns of Second City for so many years. People come and hone themselves and they just kind of leave, go on to Los Angeles, and they try and make something happen for themselves….What I really wanted to do was spotlight the talent that is in Chicago.”

Conceiving of the festival as a service to the improv community, Pitts and Callier chose not to take any money from theaters, relying instead on corporate sponsorship. Last year’s festival–the first–broke even. This year’s event, which continues through Sunday, may bring in a profit, with sponsors like WXRT and Goose Island. Industry reps from the likes of Comedy Central and Carsey-Werner were planning to attend, and Callier and Pitts added a bus tour of the city’s improv venues and information about classes for potential newcomers to the scene.

About six months into planning the first festival, Callier became head of the Second City Training Center. Now she’s about to head up all of the group’s training centers, in Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto, and those the company is starting in Cleveland, New York, and Los Angeles. And last year she formed her own African-American theater company, Black Comedy Underground, in part to bring more diversity to the improv stage. “I never wanted to play an African-American character who had six kids and was a welfare mother,” said Callier. “But to play them and with compassion now is a goal, as it is to play a female African-American president of the U.S. and a CEO. All of those are in me.

“Improvisation is life changing,” she says. “I lived on the west side of Chicago in an African-American neighborhood where the girls on my block all had kids by the time they were 17. Once a week I came to the north side of Chicago, and I had an incredible experience that expanded my mind. I had teachers who told me you need to know something about everything. You need to know about the world.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frances Collier photo by Drew Reynolds.