The Second City Says 'Welcome Back’ to Chicago's Improv Leaders 

By The Second City | Dec 14, 2021

The Second City recently hosted "Welcome Back," a panel discussion with leaders from Chicago’s improv theaters to examine the tough year-and-a-half behind us, as well as look towards a more creative (and thriving!) future. Moderated by Second City creative director Anneliese Toft, the Mainstage welcomed Mick Napier & Jennifer Estlin (The Annoyance), John Stoops (The Revival), Lillian Frances (Laugh Out Loud), Jason Geis (Comedy Sportz), Jonathan Lee-Rey & Jonald Reyes (Stepping Stone Theatre), and Jon Carr, executive producer at The Second City.

The state of improvised affairs

The conversation opened with the improv leaders taking stock of their theaters’ current operations in the wake of the pandemic’s effect. While The Second City has been welcoming in-person students and audiences for some time, the rest of the organizations reported varying degrees of operation, with many new innovations exemplifying the improv tenant of “play the scene you’re in.”

Estlin and Napier (who also happily reported that the pandemic produced the couple’s marriage) said that while (masked) classes and in-person shows have returned, they’ve adapted to a less jam-packed schedule that feels comfortable to them. Estlin noted that the Annoyance is setting new goals and creating show schedules that  “support the people making the shows and seeing the shows,” in addition to house staff. “A 32-show-a-week schedule isn’t sustainable. We don’t need or want to do that again.”

Geis echoed the sentiment that looking forward is bringing new life to ComedySportz, who closed their space on Belmont and is now operating out of The Den Theatre. “We hit a reset button,” he said, adding, “We started shows on Twitch, and we’re not getting rid of them.” Stoops’ and Frances’ reopenings are going slow and steady, with the latter organization remaining focused on “living the rules of improv in life and in business.”

Looking ahead

The newest kids on the block, Stepping Stone Theater’s Lee-Ray and Reyes, were proud to join the panel, as they only formed during the pandemic and have yet to find a brick and mortar home. Their goal of creating a space that amplifies voices from marginalized communities in comedy has been a labor of love and is a welcome addition to Chicago’s improv community, giving credence to the panel’s perspective that one theater can’t be all things to all people--and the diversity of the city’s stages provides something for everyone. (Except Russian trolls, who recently targeted The Revival.)

“We have to be proactive in building this community back,” said Carr about the theaters working together and not in competition. “It’s going to be all of us working together.”  His musings reflected not only on the impact of the pandemic, but Second City’s restructuring, as well. He proudly noted that the company has stuck true to its newest ideas and has followed through to execute commitments made to benefit the theater’s community.

Estlin mirrored the ensemble spirit while not ignoring the obstacles the Annoyance has faced.“You can easily have difficult times tear you apart. We banded together,” she said. Napier was similarly optimistic, as he hopes that the unfortunately closure of improv theaters on the coasts will bring more talent home to Chicago.

Advice to improvisers

The discussion closed with the leaders sharing their advice to the audience of improvisers.

“Diversify. Don’t try to just be what you think they want.” -Anneliese Toft

“...But don’t do it all. If you do it all, you’re a tourist.” - Jason Geis

“Know what growth looks like to you. Don’t be directionless.” -Jen Estlin

“Be your own business. If you don’t have a producer, be your own producer.” -Lillian Frances

“Be on time. Do what you say you’re going to do. Under promise and over deliver.” Jonathan Lee-Rey 

“Have fun. Remember why you do it.” -Jonald Reyes

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