On April 17, the Mainstage will unveil its 100th revue, Who Do We Think We Are? I sat down with current cast members Tim Baltz, Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Mary Sohn, Steve Waltien and director Matt Hovde to ask who they think they are.
How is the Second City different at its 100th versus its first?
Katie Rich The attention span is way shorter. In the first revue, it wasn’t odd to see a 15-minute scene. Now that’s like eternity.
Tim Baltz The digital part we’re competing against, that’s drastically different. There weren’t all these outlets for people to turn to for topical, in-the-moment, fresh satire.
Are these outlets making you think more flexibly?
Steve Waltien The thing about all those other media is that they’re all cold media, it’s something you don’t experience live, and so we have that advantage no matter what the subject matter is. This particular revue, at least as it’s evolving right now, is really interactive.
Does the audience’s expectation of Second City inhibit innovation?
KR You’re giving them too much credit. I don’t think they know what they’re seeing.
Matt Hovde Because it’s ensemble-driven, improvisational-based theater, people can always be surprised. Yes, there’s a certain level of trying to please the regulars and we definitely try to make moves and keep the form advanced enough to surprise those people, but it’s really fun to watch people who are kind of absorbing this place for the first time.
The improv nerds are probably the hardest ones to please.
Mary Sohn True, but that’s the ultimate victory, [if they laugh] then you know you’ve won it and that’s awesome.
Edgar Blackmon To a certain extent the toughest people to please are the house staff. If you can get those people then you can say fuck everybody else, because that’s as jaded as it gets.
Holly Laurent One thing I always find intensely humbling are the pictures people walk by on the way in. Even if they’re here with zero expectations, those pictures are informing them on some level.
Does that create a pressure to pay homage to the vaunted alumni?
EB I don’t think it weighs on us, it strengthens. Almost once a week I think about Jim Belushi and this thing he said, “Your job is to get people in the audience laid. Your job is to get these people to escape themselves for a moment.” That very crass but raw description of our profession, to me, has always existed and I’m empowered by that. You get to go out there and transform this day for someone, and you’re doing it in a place where your heroes did the exact same thing.
MH Some people like to point out, “Oh, the Second City’s changed so much, it’s so much faster these days and there’s more tech,” but at the end of the day we’re actually more similar to our ancestors than almost any other media. We’re still a group of people that takes suggestions from the audience and improvises stuff and finds things through discovery.
KR One thing that always gives me chills is that the revues don’t close here, they just slowly turn over, so we have sort of been doing the same revue for 100 times. It’s a lovely thing.
Are alumni coming to you and saying, “We couldn’t take these risks in our day?”
HL When alumni come back and talk to us afterwards, there’s such a nostalgic reverence and deep emotional presence for them. Mike Hagerty visited us a week ago, it was like he was returning home. He said, “This is your moment where people are listening to you and you get to say it with your words and you’ll never get to do that again.”
KR I asked him point blank, is this the best job we’ll ever have? He said yes.
Does the room feel innovative or too much like an antique space?
MS When I walk out on this stage versus the e.t.c., it feels more grand and it feels more special. I don’t mean that in a ranking kind of way, but it just feels glitterier, and to me the dusty part of it is exciting.
In what ways does the 100th indicate a theater moving forward?
EB At some point or other we were all in these chairs looking up at somebody else who we at some point wanted to be like and then you get to be that person, you get to speak and do the things that you want and at the very same time you’re handing it down yet again.
MH This group here is the younger group of improvisers and hopefully always is. They grew up with different cultural references and different comedic idols, and so they’re very educated about the people that came before and that’s what feels so fresh about this show. It feels very young and reference heavy and energetic, and it’s very aggressive and all those things which feels new and fun.
Who Do We Think We Are? opens April 17.