The amount of work it takes to create a new mainstage revue at Second City is no joke.
By the time the 108th revue officially opens in late October or early November, cast and crew will have spent months generating material, testing it out in front of audiences twice a day (sometimes thrice), and honing the sketches until they sparkle.
“It can be a grind,” said Ryan Bernier, back in the director’s chair on the resident stage for the seventh time. “Sleep is a question mark.”
Several degrees of difficulty have been added for the 2019-20 season. Bernier is working with an entirely green cast; while all are experienced performers, none has previously been part of a mainstage revue. The music director and stage manager are also new this year, making Bernier the rare veteran on the team.
“I’ve learned to trust the process. The show will reveal itself to you,” he said.
It’s helped that half his cast — Mary Catherine Curran, Jordan Savusa and Adam Schreck — all starred over the summer in the Bernier-directed “America; It’s Complicated” during Second City’s residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“Generally there’s a sense of ensemble in this cast,” said Bernier. “You can sense they enjoy each other and are having fun. I like the warmth of that.”
The company is rounded out by Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox (sliding over from Second City’s sister stage, e.t.c.) and Asia Martin, all of whom bring complementary skills and life experiences to the table.
“There’s a hierarchy of what makes these shows work. The first is funny. You want the funniest people in the room,” Bernier said of the casting process.
“The next is variety, whether that’s gender, age, where you’re from, do you have kids,” he said. “And then there’s the variety of HOW you’re funny.”
He likened the current ensemble to a Swiss Army knife. “They can all sing, they can all do accents,” Bernier said. “I’ve cast towards tone before, which gives you a specific show, but I’ve found it’s better to bend to what the actors have.”
A seventh cast member, of sorts, is the audience.
During the 10 to 12 weeks the show is in rehearsals, the cast is essentially workshopping new material nightly, often based off Bernier’s homework assignments, which might include prompts like “write a fish out of water scene” or “give me a town hall scene.”
The reception a sketch receives during this trial phase, which is now under way, can determine whether it makes it into the final show.
“For me, as a comedy geek, [rehearsal] is the most exciting time to see the show, watching the cast violently fighting for their work,” Bernier said. “There’s this high in the room, it’s electric. We’re getting real-time feedback.”
Though a theme has yet to emerge for the 108th revue (still untitled), Bernier said one trend he’s noticed is that both performers and the audience are a bit fried on current events.
Where people used to come to Second City for its point of view on the news, Twitter is filling that hole on a second-by-second basis, and audiences are now looking for escape.
“It’s a bit of a tightrope right now,” said Bernier. “We’re bouncing back and forth between point of view and silly, and there’s value in both. Absurdity and silliness is kind of the time we’re in.”
Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.