A Strong Second: An Interview with Cecily Strong of the Second City Touring Company, at Long Wharf

Posted by on June 15, 2011

The press materials for the Long Wharf’s six-performance visit from the seasoned Second City improv troupe ballyhoos that “Belushi, Colbert, Carell, Murray, Radner, Myers, Fey, Meadows, Farley, Aykroyd all came through Second City.” But the institution, which has formalized a distinctive brand of scripted sketch comedy with improv incursions, is grander than any one of them,

“It’s still a school,” says touring company  member Cecily Strong (front and center in the photo above)  in a phone chat from the company’s Chicago home base a few weeks ago. “We’ve all been through classes for every level. Going to classes is not a requisite for being cast, but doing it is certainly not a guarantee.”

The company’s used to one-night stands, so doing six shows over five days in the same space should be a class in itself. “I was excited to hear about it,” Strong says. The last time she played Connecticut was what sounds like an oxymoron—a clean one-nighter. It was a single performance for family audiences at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford. “For students and parents,” Strong explains. “A clean show. That sort of thing is decided ahead of time. It’ll be a different show for this crowd.”

Strong’s done other Second City projects—“I just understudied a role on the mainstage here. I do videos. I play at other theaters around Chicago. Your headshot is always floating around the building”—but says the touring company has become “my main focus.” Strong honed in on a comedy career as a student at CalArts, where she got a degree in theater. “There, I focused on comedy, so I was told, ‘Go to the Groundlings.’ Moving Midwest, she fell in with Second City. The workload can be intense, and Second City members are always second-guessing which projects might lead to bigger opportunities. “Lorne Michaels comes every year” to assess the Second City troops for possible Saturday Night Live duty. Strong hasn’t done that audition yet, seeking to prepare herself more first, but she has been at Second City when a writer was chosen for SNL.

The touring company does scenes from the classic Second City repertoire; “time-tested,” as Strong puts it, “a lot of old standard favorites.” Second City’s been around since the ‘60s, but to many “classic: means the era when current TV stars like Tina Fey were there. One of the sketches she wrote for the company before she landed on SNL (along with the sketch’s co-writer, Scott Adsit) is in the set for the Long Wharf run.

Days before the show was set to open, the Long Wharf announced that local TV and radio personalities would be guest performers in the shows: Channel 8’s Chris Velardi tonight, WELI’s morning drive-time guy Vinnie Penn on June 16 and, onSaturday, Geoff Fox (whose brand new home is the local Fox TV—a coincidence bound to inspire mirth among the Second Citizens) on Saturday the 18th. (The Friday night and Sunday matinee performances will be bereft of broadcasters.)

The Second City groups which get sent out on tour often fly from Chicago for a weekend, and seldom need to do the rock band thing of getting in a van for weeks at a time. That can of course add to the improvisational insanity, but there’s also the security in all the members having gone through the same training. In the case of the company Long Wharf’s getting, Strong says “I joined with the rest of them about a month ago. Some have been together for a while. We do travel together and stay at the same hotel. This group appears particularly close.”

When the New Haven run is up, it’s back to Chicago for the troupe, and a new round of assignments and workshops and auditions. “It can get crazy,” Strong says, meaning offstage this time, “but this is such a dream. You make it work.”

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