Michael Pieper was born in rural western Nebraska into a family of farmers, but knew immediately his interests lay elsewhere.

Second City’s Evil Stepchildren

By Jessica T. Gable

Michael Pieper approaches the craft of acting from very serious, ancient traditions. For him, the craft is rooted in Native American shamanism and his method of accessing a character is anchored by a very strong sense of spirituality. But he applies those traditions as a teacher at the premiere comedy institution in the Windy City- Chicago’s own Second City.

“I was drawn to shamanism when I was searching for my spirituality in my late 20’s,” Pieper, now 51, said. “I was raised Catholic and it just wasn’t clicking with me so I started to study other religions and I loved how shamanism connects you to the elements and the world around you.”

Pieper teaches a class.
Michael Pieper teaches an Acting Level 2 class at Second City. (Jessica T. Gable/Medill)

Pieper’s entry into the world of acting came early. In school, he convinced his teachers to let him write plays instead of essays, and after that it was only a matter of time before he found his path to the theater. Today, he has acted in more than 40 shows and directed more than 90.

Second City’s Training Center, which serves approximately 2,500 students each week, created the Acting Program in 1999 after Pieper brought up the idea with Martin deMaat, then the school’s artistic director. Building an acting program based on character study in a school founded decades ago on the principle of improvisation proved challenging. Second City’s Training Center, after all, has turned out several generations of master improvisers– comedy writers, standup comics, and actors known for their comedic chops like Steve Martin, Tina Fey and Steve Carrell.

“I felt like the evil stepchild,” Pieper recalled. “Many improvisers don’t realize the importance of acting training.”

It was comedy that drew Logan Hulick, a pupil of Pieper’s, to Chicago. After a foray into Chicago’s comedy scene, Hulick now teaches Acting Level 1 classes in the same program he went through only three years ago.

“I always wanted to take my comedy further,” Hulick said, “being more of an actor, so I wanted to get some more training in it.”

The program started with just three levels, but as the volume of interested students grew and his method solidified, Pieper added a fourth level. Now he offers four levels of acting training, with small classes meeting for eight-week sessions. Tuition is $329 per session.

The program draws students from backgrounds as varied as any the city had to offer, including Allie Swanson, an interior decorator.

Four years ago, at 50, she had decided to try out Pieper’s classes to overcome shyness and a fear of public speaking. They soon led to a new career path as an actress and away from interior decorating.

“I took Michael’s class and then he just opened me up immensely,” Swanson said. “Michael has an innate ability to individually tap into a person and bring all of those emotions up that you can apply to a character, to a role. My experience is that it’s a gift to be able to do that. Not a lot of people have that ability to get that out of a person.”

In Pieper’s class, Swanson engaged in beat work- the process of designating separate emotions and motivations for individual lines or moments in a play. Pieper’s method involves breaking down the human condition and the self into three separate entities: the basic, the conscious and the Higher Self.

Games, tongue-twisters and partner massage make regular appearances in his class in order to diffuse tension in the body and the mind. He also focuses on Artistotle’s six elements of a play– plot, character, diction/dialogue, thought/theme, music, spectacle– to guide the actor’s beat work. Equally vital to Pieper’s approach is helping the performers to access their own emotional memory.

“The thing I love most about teaching acting,” Pieper said, “is not only do I get to see people grow as actors but I also get to see them grow personally. Sometimes, it is just as important if not more.”

Photo at top: Pieper was born in rural western Nebraska into a family of farmers, but knew immediately his interests lay elsewhere. “I was always acting in some school play or in some sort of competition,” Pieper said. “It was hard on my father that one of his sons did not want to follow in his footsteps.” (Jessica T. Gable/Medill)