Improv, that Chicago comedic staple, has been in the news recently for some of the wrong reasons. The debate about the lack of diversity on the famed sketch comedy show "Saturday Night Live" prompted the broader question of whether a lack of diversity at the top starts at the bottom.
A look at the improv scene in Chicago, the first stop for many aspiring sketch comedy actors, turned up only one real diversity program, at The Second City. And those leading Chicago's improv and comedy scene say that although women and minorities have been breaking down barriers in the last several years, finding enough minorities for their main stages remains a challenge.
"We always have to do more," said Andrew Alexander, CEO and executive producer at Second City. "I would say the bench is fairly thin. It's not like we have a lot to draw on."
Over the last 20 years, Alexander has invested millions of dollars in Second City's diversity program, he said, ever since the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles when he watched an all-white cast fail to adequately address the historic event onstage. The diversity program includes workshops at inner-city schools, casts that feature minority talent and scholarships at The Second City training center. A dedicated budget of about $200,000 per year includes the salary for full-time Outreach and Diversity coordinator Dionna Griffin-Irons.
Alexander said he also has focused on diversity among Second City companies and resident stages. The minimum, he said, is 20 percent for the main stages, 15 percent in the touring companies and 10 percent on the cruise line, where many start out their Second City performing careers after doing time in classes.
Mick Napier, founder and artistic director of The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, said he doesn't have the financial resources to invest in minority talent as much as he would like, but due to the cross-pollination in Chicago's comedy scene, Alexander's efforts have trickled down to his stages.
"If they're serious about it, then they're going to land in our classes, on our stage in some sort of context," Napier said of students in Second City's outreach program.
Twenty years ago, Napier directed Second City's first balanced-gender cast by adding future "SNL" star Tina Fey. Until that time, casts were made up of four men and two women.
"During the late '80s and '90s, a lot more women were drawn to it, and it was starting to be ludicrous that it wasn't balanced that way," Napier said. "People started to think about it, and I started to think about it."
Women now make up 40 percent of the 3,500 students who enroll in classes each term at Second City, Alexander said, largely due to the success of comedy giants like Fey and Amy Poehler. Napier has also noticed a promising trend related to race — the inclusion of stand-up comedians at venues traditionally reserved for improv troupes.
"Ten years ago there was no way in hell you would have a stand-up show in an improv house or vice versa," Napier said. "That is a conduit for diversity as well."
Most famous minority comedians achieved their fame through stand-up comedy rather than improv, said improv actor Jordan Black, an Illinois native who said it took him years to find enough African-American talent to start a black-only troupe at The Groundlings in Los Angeles called "The Black Version."
"Culturally, black performers don't see it as a way to break into the business," Black said. "You don't know it exists until you have some black sketch performers and black improv performers break through on a wider scale."
Besides cultural barriers, there are also institutional barriers to comedic diversity. The Second City is in Old Town, a mostly white, affluent area of Chicago. "We are historically a North Side, white institution," Alexander said.
He tried to change that by planning a Second City branch in Bronzeville in 2002, when he received a $850,000 grant from the city. That was around the time that Mary Lindsey began plans to open Jokes and Notes, which would have been across the street from the Second City site, she said. Lindsey said she was disappointed when Second City's plans fell through because of conflicting visions between Second City and the local alderman. (Alexander said the plans became too "ambitious.")
"If we had had Second City across the street with sketch and workshops, it would have taken the game to a whole other level," said Lindsey, who opened her club at 47th Street and South King Drive in 2006.
Despite her disappointment, Lindsey has been encouraged by Griffin-Irons' recruiting efforts on the South Side, along with the recruiting efforts of Kendra Carter, director of NBC/Universal Talent Diversity Initiatives.
"I can't tell you how much it has changed the attitude and perspectives of a lot of the black comedians on the South Side," Lindsey said. "For a long time they just felt so isolated, like, 'OK, no one wants to deal with us but black comics, black people.'"
Charna Halpern, artistic director of The iO, the second-most prominent theater in Chicago comedy, which has, like Second City, fed famous comedians into television, said she has noticed a lack of minority talent on some levels. This year, she had only one black woman in each of her auditions in Los Angeles and Chicago.
"I have some coming up for future auditions," she said. "They just need to get wet behind the ears."
Halpern does not keep quotas or look specifically for minority actors, she said, saying she simply looks for the "best players."
"We will teach people if they have the desire to be the best," Halpern said. She has seen the improv world become more diverse in the last 10 years, which she attributes to the growing popularity of the art form with audiences, as well as casting agents who increasingly want their actors to have improv experience.
"It used to be very underground when I started 30 years ago," Halpern said. "We couldn't get audiences either. Now we do. Our audiences are also diverse now, so that helps when people watch and say, 'Hey I can do this,'" Halpern said. "I remember a time when I first started that I had no women. Then that changed. Years later, I had no minorities. That has greatly changed."
Teatro Luna, Chicago's only all-Latina theater, is an example of this. When it was founded 13 years ago, even stereotypical parts weren't going to Latinos, said executive director Alexandra Meda, but to "people who passed as Latinos, even on small stages."
Meda believes minorities need to break through on the national level, but she has lost hope in Hollywood or New York-based executives. She believes minorities must enter national stages by producing independently. Jason Chin, associate artistic director at iO, thinks executives are blind to the diversity issue and should expand the places where they look for talent as one way to solve the problem.
"I think part of it is Lorne Michaels, who has always been rich, has always been white and has always been a man," Chin said of the "SNL" head. "It's just a microcosm of our country. In elite circles there's always a lack of diversity, and 'SNL' is an elite show."
Chin moved from New York to Chicago 25 years ago and studied at Second City before running the training center at iO for eight years and then becoming an associate director there. He has also done work with Stir Friday Night!, an improv show with an all- Asian-American cast. Chin recalled that in his beginning improv classes 25 years ago, peers were likely to turn him into a soldier in the Korean or Vietnam wars, "but from the wrong side," Chin said.
As he progressed in his training, Chin learned to take control of the scene and turn it to his advantage. Similarly, while he has seen many bad decisions made on the national stage, like when North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un was portrayed by a "tiny white woman" on "SNL" ("That's not fun," Chin said. "Asians get mad about it, but we don't organize"), he makes his own goals on his own stage.
"To lead by example, to do shows that aren't solely based on race, to be people on stage that are people and not caricatures," Chin said. "I've learned over the years if something racist happens toward me that might affect me, I address it in a comedic fashion. I think students particularly like to see that — 'Oh, I see how he handled that. Now I now how to handle that.' You don't have to be what someone pins you as."
When: 9 p.m. Saturdays(show starts in April)
Where: Donny's Skybox Theatre, 1608 N. Wells St.
Tickets: $13; secondcitydiversity.com
Stir Friday Night!
When: Times vary
Where: Venues vary
Tickets: prices vary; stirfridaynight.org
The Armando Diaz Experience
When: 8:30 p.m. Mondays
Where: Del Close Theater at iO, 3541 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $12; ioimprov.com/chicago
When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays
Where: Del Close Theater at iO, 3541 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $5; ioimprov.com
Jokes and Notes
When: Wednesdays through Saturdays
Where: 4641 S. King Drive.
Tickets: Times, prices vary; jokesandnotes.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun