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Comedy

Momentary madness

Second City-Detroit continues a tradition of on-the-spot, spot-on satire.

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Published 5/12/1999

"Something wonderful right away." This, from the title of a book written by Jeffrey Sweet about the Second City, describes the improvisational theater’s creative draw on audiences in Chicago, Toronto and Detroit. Combining ensemble acting and political satire, the Second City has carved out a theatrical niche in all three of its hubs.

The Detroit chapter’s new artistic director, Joe Janes, comes to the Motor City from Chicago where he was a member of the Second City national touring company and director of its writing program. Considering his ties to the comedic institution, Janes’ enthusiasm is not surprising.

"Instead of going through six to eight weeks of intense character study to put a piece of a play together, it’s more like, do it now! … From an actor’s standpoint, it’s more like working outside-in – we rehearse a lot of improv so we can make it up in the moment," describes Janes. Truly, the improvisational authenticity is built in during a show’s inception.

Although what the audience sees is scripted, a show has been developed through improv by the entire cast. It is that creative collaboration that most appeals to Second City-Detroit member, Nyima Woods. "This type of theater allows the actors to have input into every aspect of the production. We’re always working together by sharing ideas, honing one another’s skills, developing skits and bringing it all to the stage."

Woods, an Ann Arbor native, studied musical theater at the University of Michigan. She is better known in her hometown for her work in musical and dramatic roles, but was thrilled to heed the call of improvisational theater when approached by a Second City official to join the cast in 1998. She and her castmates are in awe of the Second City legacy of talent.

With a history spanning more than 35 years, the Second City traces its roots to a small group of theater students from the University of Chicago. After more than two decades in Chicago, the improv theater expanded to Toronto and, in 1993, a partnership with the Ilitch family opened the way for its third home, in Detroit. Along the way, a who’s who of comedic alumni – Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and Joan Rivers – began their impressive careers with the theater.

Although the Detroit chapter is relatively new, artistic director Janes believes that, through the training center (open to the public) and the main stage experience, some local talents may go on to make a name for themselves in the business.

"Two of our actors, Larry Campbell and Eric Black, moved to Los Angeles and have been catapulted into the Hollywood audition track with some early success," Janes says proudly.

But back here next door to the Fox Theatre, the ensemble is cranking out performances, Wednesday through Sunday, of its latest live comedy installment, Impeachment and Cream.

Impeachment doesn’t deliver nonstop laughs, as is often expected by audiences accustomed to stand-up and sitcoms, but it does offer a unique theater experience with a talented cast. Hopefully, as the show develops over the next several weeks, the laugh element will increase. In the meantime, the diverse and wacky crew acts out subtle social statements concerning local and national current events, sex, family relationships and, everyone’s favorite, the ubiquitous road commission signs on the Michigan highways advising drivers low on fuel to fill up.

With most traditional theater companies on summer hiatus, and a slew of mediocre blockbuster films on the horizon, the Second City is an alternative entertainment experience you can’t afford to miss.

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