“A lot of the skills that our actors need to be successful onstage translate well to the business world,” says Tom Yorton at Second City Communications. “Skills like listening, agility, thinking on your feet, teamwork, even conflict resolution.”
Still, the bulk of those 15,000 students want to follow in the footsteps of their comedic icons. As Chicago-based actor and writer Eli Golden says: “It’s everyone’s dream to be onstage with Second City.” That’s not such a simple task. Even with all the stages and touring companies Second City utilizes, there are only 120 actors and writers employed annually. Golden, who recently completed his first year of training, must now audition for a second year of classes at the group’s conservatory. After successfully graduating from that program, Golden can audition for one of the touring companies. If you’re incredibly fortunate, after spending several years with a touring company, you might be picked to appear on one of those precious few Second City stages. So, on average, a performer who climbs the ranks to Chicago’s Main Stage has been with the troupe a good six to seven years. Carell was with Second City for eight years and, according to Alexander, was always inventive. “One performance, he played a serial killer looking to date a girl at a Laundromat,” Alexander remembers. “She asked him what he did for a living.”
Second City is only closed two days a year, Christmas and Christmas Eve, so performers who are hired to work the theaters must write and perform for six to eight months straight, with no time off. It’s a grueling amount of work where it’s almost impossible not to develop the necessary skills like timing and strong character you need to succeed as a comedian in film and television. Perhaps this is the reason Second City has become such a breeding ground for comedic pay dirt.
“You’re onstage every night for as long as five hours, so unless you’re a complete idiot — and I met a few — you begin to understand what the audience likes and what they don’t like,” Thomas says.
“It’s both electrifying and demanding,” Arkin adds. “We’d often do three shows back-to-back on weekends, and it was exhausting. But it was also extraordinary training and very, very meaningful.”
Dream, aspire, work hard — and just maybe you’ll have what it takes to be the next Eugene Levy pretending to be a circus ringmaster who trains his amoeba to jump from one chair to the other.