Welcome to Chicago! You’re jet lagged, you’re only in this city of world-class theatre and entertainment for a weekend and you haven’t (really) got a clue what’s on offer.
This is how I arrived in the Windy City. I’d done a bit of research on the sights I needed to see in my two days (‘research’ being two Facebook posts looking for recommendations, one to my news feed and another to a popular female travel forum I’m a part of), and had a few vague ideas concerning an architecture boat tour and the Skydeck experience (neither of which I actually ended up doing). But, bizarrely for this theatre nut, I had given absolutely no consideration to the shows I might be interested in catching. Moseying around the downtown theatre district in search of deep dish pizza to fill my aching stomach and soothe my sleep-deprived mind on that first night, seeing all the bright lights and ‘sold out’ Joffrey Ballet signs, I certainly felt a tad sheepish for taking such a lackadaisical approach to my travel planning.
Salvation arrived in the form of a Michigan-based friend from uni, who responded to my plea for guidance in the knowledge that I couldn’t leave this place without experiencing some of the entertainment treats it had to offer. She suggested I try to see something at any of the following: Steppenwolf Theatre, The Second City, Barrel of Monkeys, Blue Man Group and Looking Glass Theatre. Knowing I only had time for one show if I wanted to do anything else at all with my time in Chicago, a quick game of eeny-meeny resulted in my plumping for The Second City. I didn’t even look at the others — I’d left it too late to overwhelm myself with choices.
The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise that started in Chicago and now has locations in Toronto, Los Angeles and, I have since discovered, London. They also provide training for the next up-and-coming improv artists (Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Steve Carell all started off here) and, since opening in December 1959, have become one of the world’s most influential centres for comedy and improvisation.
Being on a tight budget and a limited timeframe, I searched for the cheapest show available on my last night in the city, which was a Sunday. To my delight, I discovered that tickets were available for ‘Infinite Sundaes’, a ‘singprov’ show performed by none other than The Second City trainees themselves. Tickets were only $12 a pop (not including tax) and, sitting in a downtown branch of Goddess and the Baker, munching my avocado and quinoa salad and filching their WiFi so I could order the tickets, I felt pretty chuffed at how things had turned out.
Arriving at the theatre near Lincoln Park the following evening, I was ushered into one of the smallest performance spaces I’ve yet experienced. With un-ranked seating for about fifty patrons (nicely upholstered chairs laid out in rows and the occasional table) and a stage so small that the actors looked like they were about to topple off and land right on top of us, I started to feel secretly pleased that I hadn’t decided to shell out for one of the big-name shows in the theatre district. With rough prompts in their hands and no costumes to speak of, the actors took us through an hour of high-energy improvised musical comedy, culminating in a totally script-free ‘singprov’ workshop that had everyone hooting with laughter.
The great thing about improv is that you could go to the same show multiple times and see a different performance on each occasion. I was lucky to experience these fledgling artists walking the sharp edge of their talent, producing characters and situations that no one could have predicted would appear on the stage before the show began — with roaring success. While I would definitely recommend at least doing a teeny bit of planning ahead (to avoid the panic and self-loathing involved in thinking you might miss out), my Second City experience taught me that there is entertainment available for every budget, taste and timeframe in Chicago. It was fantastic, and if you’re interested in improvised comedy I would certainly recommend stopping by if you’re ever in any of the four cities The Second City operates from.
(The Second City perform and train at multiple locations across Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles and London. Ticket prices depend on show, venue and city. For more information visit www.secondcity.com )