A comedy showcase has its finale, but the awards will continue, including new ones supported by Second City.
There’s a lot happening on the Mainstage of Second City Toronto currently that isn’t their (excellent) mainstage revue Click Bait & Switch. Last night was the first of a two-night stand remount for Truth ‘n’ Lies’ Fringe hit The Philanderess; the farce, a clever and feminist adaptation of a George Bernard show play, runs once more late this Sunday. Then on Monday night, a star-studded last hurrah for the annual Cream of Comedy showcase will feature alumni from the past 20 editions, hosted by Deborah DiGiovanni and D.J. Demers and featuring two dozen renowned stand-ups and comics, many of whom have no official connection to Second City.
It’s all part of an mindset that’s developed over the past decade at Second City under executive director Klaus Schuller. For Schuller, the rationale for programming and supporting comedy content that didn’t originate with Second City is simple: “It’s an old axiom: a rising tide lifts all boats. We try to support Canadian comedy in general.”
Stand-up comic Dawn Whitwell was in attendance at the first-ever Cream of Comedy, the name for the awards show that showcased the finalists for the Tim Sims Encouragement Award. “I volunteered. My friends, Lisa [Brooke] and Shoshana [Sperling], were nominated for their clown duo, The Sunshine Steppers. I remember gift-wrapping presents for the nominees–VHS tapes.”
Three editions later, in 1998, Whitwell was nominated herself (she ended up losing to fellow queer comic Gavin Crawford, famed now for his long run on This Hour Has 22 Minutes). “I’d only been in stand-up for a year. Eric Tunney hosted that year, and I then got to open for him at the Laugh Resort. He was dry and intelligent, and I told myself after, I’m gonna do this, and shoot for that.” This past year, Whitwell was invited to showcase at the Just For Laughs Festival, and also at JFL42 here in Toronto.
Second City has long supported the Tim Sims Encouragement Award, both as a venue and sponsor. “We wanted to honour Tim’s legacy–he was a cherished member of our community,” says Schuller. Longtime producer Lindsey Leese is retiring the Cream of Comedy showcase, but the award will continue in a form to be announced at Monday night’s gala celebration.
Schuller remembers when he first arrived in Toronto, there were odd schisms in the comedy community. “I was on a panel for the Toronto Improv Festival [a precursor to the current Big City Improv Festival, running to Saturday, October 24.] it was perplexing to me how so many companies were insular–holding on to their performers and audiences, not cross promoting. That was antithetical to my experience with Improv Olympics and Second City Chicago. So we’ve worked since as an institution to help as we can, invite other companies in, broaden our programming and classes.”
Supporting a vibrant comedy scene does reap dividends for Second City. “I’ll cop to it, of course–all of these companies and stages are good training for people we recruit for our stage. Classes aren’t enough; comics need stage time, and diverse training and experiences.” Current mainstage cast member Becky Johnson, for instance, had never worked with Second City before being cast. “We try to work closely with Gary [Rideout] at Comedy Bar, and Julie [Dumais] at Bad Dog, and hopefully, more with Ralph [MacLeod] and Carmine [Lucarelli] at the Social Capitol,” says Schuller of some of the other hotspots for comedy in Toronto.
Second City’s newest award, the Fringe Festival Outstanding New Comedy Award, provided playwright and star Sophia Fabilli with money to re-stage her show on their stage, among other things. “No one gets a remount done for them, typically,” says Fabilli. “To get the producing support, and the venue–I love this venue. Second City is like my fairy godmother in this scenario.”
“The original intention,” continues Fabilli, “was for the award to go to a sketch or stand-up show, so we were delighted and surprised to win. And the Mainspace really is great for a farce like The Philanderess.” Of the award, Schuller says, “the idea of a Fringe award specifically for comedy was obviously attractive to us–we’ve done one for SketchFest for years, of course.”
Many of the comics featured over the years on Cream of Comedy haven’t had obvious connections to Second City, but we’re surprised to learn, that, in both Whitwell and Fabilli’s case, there are Second City connections. “I started the stand-up classes at Second City Toronto,” Whitwell tells us, where she taught for six years before branching off on her own; her popular Comedy Girl classes were profiled earlier this year in The Globe & Mail. Schuller is aware of Whitwell’s connection, but is initially surprised to hear that Fabilli took improv classes there–and was twice invited to the Second City Conservatory. (“I had to drop out both times for acting gigs,” she confesses.)
For Whitwell, Fabilli, and all the other comics who’ve benefitted from Second City’s awards, perhaps the most valuable aspect is exposure and validation. “Your family gets it–they know what Second City is,” says Whitwell. “From my Tim Sims nomination, I got an ACTRA credit, because it was televised, and my first press. It was, literally, encouraging. I’ve come back every year to see it, and been on the jury twice–and that’s what inspired me to start Comedy Girl. The percentage of students of a stand-up class who become comics is like one in 20–so for every class, I thought, that’ll be one more girl.”
Fabilli, who’s also this fall working on adaptations of Brave New World with Litmus Theatre and Casimir and Caroline with Howland Theatre Company, is especially excited to be bringing theatre audiences to Second City. “Being the inaugural winners of this award–it’s very cool. And people have been saying, ‘Second City is doing your play? That’s awesome!'” For Schuller, the outreach helps keep Second City’s own brand strong. “I’ve cast people off of SummerWorks festival shows, after all.”