By Piero Procaccini – Facilitator
As our ETC stage prepares to open its 41st review, Fantastic Super Great Nation Numero Uno, it seems an appropriate time to peek behind the curtain and take a look at how, at Second City, we arrive at our final product: a brand new two-act comedy show full of original material. The several months it takes the ensemble to prepare the next show is referred to, internally, as Process, with a capital “P” and it constitutes a critical component of how we have been writing our shows for over half a century. We have also discovered, in recent years, at Second City Works – the corporate arm of our theatre – that our methodology can actually provide a really valuable framework for businesses as they work to stay relevant and adaptable in the ever-changing corporate landscape. More on that in a moment, but first…
Let’s talk about Process
A regular show at Second City is comprised of two acts of mostly scripted material that each run about 45 minutes, followed by a “30-minute Set” of completely improvised material. In contrast to many other forms of theatre, at Second City the actors that perform the material are also the writers who create it. Every six to twelve months, a show “turns over” – that is to say, one show closes and a new one opens. In preparation for the new show, the cast goes into Process which generally lasts about 2- 3 months. During this time, the actors, musical director and stage manager, guided by a director, hold rehearsals and develop scene ideas for the new show. Sometimes scenes will come in fully-scripted by one of the actors, but more often than not, the cast develops material through improvisation – either by open improv based on suggestions or by improvising a scene based on a premise brought in by one of the actors.
The actors work and rework this material in rehearsals but the real luxury we have at Second City, and the secret ingredient to success, is that third act I mentioned – our improvised “Set.” Normally, the Set can be used for anything – sometimes the actors just take the opportunity to improvise with each other, sometimes there is a Second City alum or a special guest in the audience who is invited onstage to join in the fun, and sometimes the cast finds fun challenges for one another. During Process, the Set is an opportunity to test material in front of an audience to get a read on how it will be received. At Second City, the Sets are free, so many patrons simply stick around after the first two acts to watch and often students and comedy fans will queue at the door to occupy any empty seats – point being, that we have a built-in audience, ready and eager to take part in our artistic experimentation.
Trial and Error
When in Process, we’ll usually begin a Set by explaining that we are working on a new show and trying out some new material. The audience is then encouraged to laugh and applaud when they enjoy something because it will help us determine whether it will make it into the show. Sometimes the cast has scripts in hand as they perform the new material, but frequently, the cast simply improvises and the director watches to gauge whether the material is hitting and why. Scenes are then reworked in rehearsal or eliminated based on what we learn in the Set. Scenes that reach a point of working consistently are then swapped into the first two acts until all the scenes from the old show are gone and the new scenes have all taken their place.
As you may well imagine, our Process involves a lot of failure. We fail and fail and fail – and the beauty of Process is that we embrace failure as a crucial component of it. If we are not failing, we are not taking risks and pushing the envelope, which makes for very safe, uninspired comedy. So, as a part of our Process, we see failure as critically important but, and this is the tricky part, it doesn’t count if we are trying to fail. We have to try to succeed and accept any failure as essential feedback and that is easier said than done. It turns out there is a very visceral emotional response to failure and it is not positive. We don’t like failing. So as part of our Process, actors have to become good at both learning from failure and continuing to commit to what they are doing, even when an audience is not responding positively. In improv, you have to become comfortable being uncomfortable and, in our experience, the best way to do that is to practice – so we fail (a lot).
One of the dangers of failure is that it is possible – even likely – that we might learn the wrong lessons from failure. Rather than resilience, failure can, instead, teach us the opposite – that our ideas are not good, that we are no good, that we should just give up and go home. Why even bother? How, then, can we make sure that we are learning the right lessons? This, too, is built into our Process and it begins with shifting your mindset so that we see failure as really important – if we are not failing in some capacity, we are not doing our job. At the same time, we have to FEEL the value of failure, not just know it intellectually, and we must also feel that the failure, itself, is not a big deal – otherwise we will not overcome our own disappointment. Inherent in our structure, is yet another tremendously powerful tool: Ensemble. We refer to our casts as ensembles because they do so much more than just perform and, at the heart of all of it, is a need to work well as a team. A good ensemble does more than just offer support onstage. A good ensemble actually makes it easier to learn the right lessons from failure because when you fail, you are not alone, and that makes failure not nearly as daunting. Sometimes it can actually even start to be fun.
I always like to say, the amazing thing about our work is that it’s either a great gig or a great story or, if we’re really lucky, sometimes both! In an interview with Charlie Rose, Stephen Colbert highlights this sentiment when he talks about when he decided he had to be a comedian.
(16:35 – 17:47)]. During one of their shows, an actor accidentally botched a punchline onstage. When she returned backstage at the end of her scene, instead of judgement, the cast met the mistake with utter delight. This isn’t to say that failure is always fun – sometimes it is excruciating – but it helps tremendously to have a group of people you trust, who can laugh with you about it – it softens the blow and allows you to focus on what is important: learning from that failure.
A Failing Business
So how does this relate to the business world? In our work as facilitators, we often find that, in many of the companies we visit, there is a real apprehension around failure. Some companies don’t even like to use the word. Our point of view is that if you don’t find a way to incorporate failure into your system, you hinder your team from learning to be experts in their field and at learning to adapt when the landscape shifts. Incorporating failure is going to look different for each and every company – chances are, you are not testing scenes onstage in front of a live audience and learning what makes people laugh – so I cannot tell you how to best incorporate failure in your world. What I can share with you, however, are some of the broad parameters that seem to be important:
1.) First off, you want to provide an opportunity to fail early on and when the stakes are low – when the failure won’t result in catastrophe.
2.) You want to think in terms of process over product (in our case, Process over product) – see if you can find ways so that your team can become comfortable taking calculated risks and learning from the results. It won’t happen overnight so it has to be an ongoing goal.
3.) You want to build an ensemble that embraces the process and that can delight in both the successes and the stories along the way.
If you can begin to think in terms of Process, your product inevitably benefits as well because you have had a chance to find out what actually works instead of just speculating about it. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to seeing the product of our most recent Process. Happy Opening, ETC!