The Second City, Chicago’s fabled improv mecca, announced Tuesday that it has signed a lease with Old Town Development Associates, L.L.C., that will enable it to double its footprint in the Piper’s Alley complex, 230 W. North Ave. at the corner of Wells Street.
The additional 25,000 square feet — which will incorporate the former four-screen AMC movie theater section of the building — will be used for significant expansion of Second City’s Training Center, with added classrooms, a digital production facility, two student theaters (in black box cabaret style, with about 90 seats each), a screening room, a resource center and a student lounge and bar. Two large special events spaces and additional room for all of Second City’s growing business activities also are planned, essentially doubling Second City’s current footprint.
The second-floor space at Pipers Alley first opened as a movie theater in 1991, and has been unoccupied since AMC went dark in May 2011. The Training Center’s build-out, at an estimated cost of $3 million, will begin immediately, with physical enhancements to include opening up the bricked-over, 22-foot high window arches overlooking North Avenue and Wells Street. The space is expected to be completed and ready to serve students by the spring of 2015. All of the existing Second City stages — the mainstage cabaret, the Second City e.t.c., Donny’s Skybox, the Martin de Matt Theater, and UP, the standup comedy stage, will remain as they are.
The big question is: Why didn’t all this happen sooner?
“We’ve been renting here since 1967, said Andrew Alexander, CEO and Executive Producer of The Second City, Inc. “And we first talked about this space as far back as 15 or 20 years ago, but the time was not right. With this deal we’ve been in negotiations for about two years, although it really heated up in the last six months. Others were interested in the space, but we finally made a deal we could live with. We are responsible for the full cost of the build-out, with Chicago architect Ryan Nestor, with Barker Nestor Architecture and Design, overseeing the project.”
According to Alexander, the Training Center (which is affiliated with Columbia College’s Comedy Studies program) accounts for about 25 per cent of The Second City’s business, with students coming from all parts of the country. The Hollywood Reporter recently named the Center among “The 25 Best Drama Schools in 2014,” alongside Yale School of Drama, The Juilliard School and Carnegie Mellon University. And last month it announced the launch of its TV, film and digital programs under the direction of Jack C. Newell. Its new classrooms (increasing from 15 to about 30) will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology including voiceover studios, on-camera training studios and editing suites to accommodate the digital program launch.
“The Center now enrolls about 2,500 students per eight-week term, with eight terms per year,” said Alexander. “And most of our students stay for two years, some of them earning credits at Columbia, and a good number deciding to move to Chicago.”
“This city is the worldwide epicenter for improvisational comedy. We are home to iO Chicago [formerly called ImprovOlympic], and other operations, as well as The Onion, and while we are all somewhat different, we all feed off each other.” (As it happens, iO Chicago also is in the process of expanding. After almost 20 years at 3541 N. Clark it will take up residence in a new home at 1501 N. Kingsbury, with 38,000 square feet of space containing 4 theaters, 3 bars, an events space and its own expanded Training Center. A “soft launch” is set for Aug. 1.)
“Our training center is already diverse, with classes in writing, acting, film and short form digital material suitable for today’s technology,” said Alexander. “But we will be expanding all that, focusing on what kind of material works best for those platforms.”
The Second City’s current operational budget for all its endeavors (including Canada) is currently about $40 million, according to Alexander. With added rent and upkeep, plus an increase in faculty from about 110 part-timers to about 190, costs will obviously increase.
“For years we’ve been listening to student feedback and building this plan to fulfill their requests,” said Kerry Sheehan, president of the Second City Training Centers & Education Programs. “Not only will we now be able to better accommodate our wait-lists in core programs such as improvisation and writing, but our newer initiatives into digital media and advanced classes for the professionally tracked student will have room to grow and thrive. And students on a professional track will be able to get even more stage time.”