Second City continues to strive for diversity with new film school

By Tim Rosenberger

Chicago’s Second City has set a high bar for diverse casts for decades. So some may find it strange that the comedy powerhouse’s newest project is devoted mainly to inclusion. But in the wake of the recent debate about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, the opening of a Second City comedy film school, the troupe’s first step into that entertainment territory, could catch the attention of minorities and help the school accomplish its goal of bringing in different moviemakers and voices from across the globe.

Famous for its sketch and improv stage shows, Second City’s recently announced Harold Ramis Film School is named for Ramis, an actor, director, writer and Second City alum known for the films “Candyshack,” “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.” The school will offer a yearlong program focused on teaching students about film comedy.

One aim is to enroll a diverse group of aspiring filmmakers drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds. Looking for a diverse group of storytellers is nothing new for Second City, which began its Diversity and Inclusion program over 23 years ago to attract a wider range of performers telling a wider range of stories.

“Now it’s another medium that [filmmakers] and students are going to have to tell those stories, and again, yes, we’re all about having diverse voices because that’s what’s in our world,” said Dionna Griffin-Irons, director of Second City’s Diversity and Inclusion program. “Our world is full of diverse voices, and we want to represent the beauty of all the voices in the work.”

Sonia Denis performing in Afro-Futurism (Clayton Hauck/SECOND CITY).
Sonia Denis performs in “Afro-Futurism,” a current Second City show featuring stand-up, sketches, music and performances focusing on street satire of Chicago (Clayton Hauck/SECOND CITY).

The Diversity and Inclusion program exposes Second City’s work to a broad array of communities as well as schools, women shelters and juvenile detention centers. Some of its projects reach people who may never have seen a live stage show.

The organization offers mentorships, workshops, lectures and shows, some of them geared to a specific group or demographic. Outreach can also be as simple as Griffin-Irons posting fliers in Chicago’s South Side.

Two years ago, Second City created the Bob Curry Fellowship, named for the first African-American to perform, in 1966,  on Second City’s stage. The annual fellowship provides a free, eight-week, hands-on mentorship and training program for 16 students from different cultures.

Since the fellowship’s inception, Second City estimates that 50 percent of the Curry Fellows have been hired by its touring, resident stages and theatrical divisions.

The 2014, inaugural class for The Bob Curry Fellowship poses for a photo (PHOTO COURTESY OF SECOND CITY).
The 2014, inaugural class for The Bob Curry Fellowship poses for a photo (PHOTO COURTESY OF SECOND CITY).

According to Second City’s 2013 statistics, the Outreach program has brought the company 90 percent of its non-white performers. That year, 43 non-white  grad students involved in Second City’s Conservatory Program turned out for the organization’s general auditions, the highest number  to date. And 48 performers–non-whites and members of the LGBTQ community–appeared in the Outreach program’s R.E.A.C.H. shows that year.

While today you can find consistently diverse casts on Second City’s stage, this was not always the case. Aaron Freeman, an African-American comedian, writer, director and performer, has worked with Second City sporadically over the decades. When he first arrived in 1978, the people he worked with were all white, he said.

That imbalanced demographic became a serious drawback in 1992 when Second City co-owner Andrew Alexander returned to Chicago from Los Angeles after witnessing the riots that erupted after the police beating of black taxi driver Rodney King. Second City’s improv actors were struggling to address the riots. It was a wakeup call for Alexander, Griffin-Irons said.

“[He was] saying how we needed more diverse representation on the stages and voices in the work so that it would be reflective of the world [and] the people in it,” Griffin-Irons said, “so that when these incidents come up [and] we do social and political satire, we are being true to the art form [and] we’re being reflective of what is happening.”

Even before the race riots, though, Freeman noticed a change in Second City. When he returned in the mid-to-late-1980s he found it much more diverse. The diversity led to a wider array of audiences and a broader talent pool.

“It [has] not only helped Second City, but it has given Chicago a big chunk of Second City-trained improvisers,” Freeman said. “The whole improv scene is richer now, because we have input now from a much more diverse Second City-trained group of practitioners.”

Felonious Munk hosts Afro-Futurism, a current Second City show featuring stand-up, sketches, music and performances focusing on street satire of Chicago.
Felonious Munk hosts “Afro-Futurism.” (Clayton Hauck/SECOND CITY).

With a wider perspective because of the number of cultures on stage, Freeman said, the performers come closer to reflecting the lives of the audience and the world they live in.

Trevor Albert, a Hollywood producer, former movie associate of Ramis and the head of the new film school, wants to continue Second City’s diversity tradition. He and Second City officials talked from the very beginning about bringing in students from around the world, not just Chicago. But it is equally important to both the sketch comedy training center and the film school, he said, that Second City continues representing Chicago, its communities and its voices.

Second City will be offering numerous scholarships, courtesy of Ramis’s widow Erica Mann Ramis, making the school available to those who may have trouble paying the $15,000 annual tuition.

Initially, 15 students will enter the film school when it opens its doors this September, followed by an additional 15 every three months. The school’s advisory board includes such high-profile Hollywood figures as Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Steve Carell, and the presidents of Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox.

Backed by the influential board and the power of networking, the students will create portfolios of their work — films, television pilots and screenplays — to help them break into the world of Hollywood.

These perks all sound enticing, and Second City has been getting an  enthusiastic response to the idea of the school over the past few weeks. But, Albert said, he does not know who or how many people are going to apply.

He is confident, however, that, with the diversity DNA already deeply embedded in Second City, the Ramis school will attract a varied group of students. With the lack of diversity in Hollywood being such a hot topic lately, Albert said the process of diversifying movies has to start at film schools, if not before.

“The fact that young kids from every sort of background, who are going to public schools, are not guaranteed arts education is just criminal,” Albert said. “Of course, if there’s no opportunity to be exposed to the arts in elementary school and in high school what are the chances we [can] make a huge change in the diversity of the entertainment business, or any businesses for that matter?”

Photo at top: The So-Chi Voices musical group, featuring rapper Marcel “Mr. Greenweedz” Wilks and Rashida Olayiwola, perform during “Afro-Futurism.” (Clayton Hauck/SECOND CITY)