Going to a live indoor Second City show felt strange and unnerving — for both the audience and the performers

As the Second City Toronto became the first professional company to resume live indoor performances on Thursday night, I approached its “Safer, Shorter & Still So Funny” thinking about the five performers about to premiere the show — to an anxious crowd of 50 people seated eight feet part, their laughs muffled under masks, the performers recoiling if their comedic energy propelled moist globules too far off the stage.

Every young comedian’s dream.

But after being seated in the cavernous mainstage theatre — at just 16.7 per cent capacity, there was room to do cartwheels in between the tables versus the usual labyrinthian pathways — I found the audience surprisingly relaxed. Masks are mandatory everywhere except your table, where you can order food and drinks via a QR code. The vast majority of the attendees I could see on the main floor were maskless at moments, sipping drinks like it was a proper Thursday night out in the normal times.

That wasn’t me; this was the first prolonged indoor activity in a public space I had experienced since mid-March, when the performing arts, along with everything else, went dark to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Being back inside, in the biggest crowd I’d seen in months, started to poke holes in the confidence I had built to get me through the door. The Second City’s health precautions include consistent cleaning of touchpoints, a medical grade disinfectant, and daily temperature checks for staff and performers. But it also relies on an honour code for the audience to answer screening questions honestly and behave within reason; not infrequently, the Second City has been a venue for audiences to escape such rules.

I would soon hear I wasn’t alone in my skepticism. “I’ve never been more judgmental!” exclaimed performer Natalie Metcalfe, as she and her four castmates — Tricia Black, Andrew Bushell, Nkasi Ogbonnah and Chris Wilson — took to the stage for the first time in six months for the 65-minute improv set.

Zoom calls born out of a desperation for contact, clinging to horoscopes for a semblance of direction, perilous at-home workouts and self-help attempts, the cast has been through it all too, for better and worse. That kind of connection between performer and audience — the mutual commiseration or celebration of what we’re all going through — is what live performance does best and, particularly, comedy.

In theory, a night of laughs should be exactly what the doctor ordered after this hell mouth of a year. But, of course, the context of “Safer, Shorter & Still So Funny” was inescapable, especially for the cast. “Wow, we’re back, eh?” said Black to begin the show. “Is it too soon?” asked Bushell.

Whether that’s true or not, the cast acknowledged the time between performances may have left them a bit rusty — and this particular cast, which held Zoom rehearsals with director Ashley Botting, had never even performed onstage together. So it was unsurprising, and no one’s fault, when some games worked better than others on this first outing. I believe some — like one called “Get Close,” which saw Ogbonnah and Black get physically drawn together and pulled apart by music cues from stage manager Mark Andrada — may be jettisoned in the next few days.

But the strangeness of the situation makes for an exceptional environment for the excitement of failure. The entire cast seemed wired; nerves, emotions, stresses and even existential crises were on the surface. A missed joke by Wilson early on, his first improv joke back on that stage, ended in an anguished, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

If anything, the atmosphere of these five people making their way through something that used to feel normal, even innate, now rendered foreign, was the biggest catharsis of the evening.

In such an intimate environment, it didn’t just feel like the cast were talking directly to the audience: they literally were. It’s impossible to disappear into the crowd — which may or may not sound like your idea of a good time — and the audience is even more strongly implicated in the improv scenes.

Silences after a request for a location, relationship, a famous movie line or whatever, to fuel the comedy, landed like thuds whereas before they would be blips in the night’s momentum. Even with a safe distance between performer and audience, and between performers (most of the time, part of the fun was watching them navigate the precautions and Camellia Koo’s custom set), the relationship between us was closer than I’ve ever experienced at the Second City.

This improv show runs until Oct. 8, when the cast will begin previews for the 34th mainstage revue, the final one at the Second City’s venue on Mercer Street, which was sold last year. That show, according to the company, will return to the traditional format: a mix of sketch and improv with a live music director on piano.

Loading…

Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…

It’s difficult to wrap my mind around that possibility, that much of a return to normal in the coming winter, without a major commitment to community safety measures. But Metcalfe showed what’s at stake in her introduction to “Safer, Shorter & Still So Funny” on Thursday night, her voice trembling on the verge of tears at the chance to perform in front of an audience with her colleagues again.

Artists are suffering without being able to practise their craft. That’s no joke.

“Safer, Shorter & Still So Funny,” created by Tricia Black, Andrew Bushell, Natalie Metcalfe, Nkasi Ogbonnah and Chris Wilson, and directed by Ashley Botting, is at the Second City Toronto, 51 Mercer St., until Oct. 8. Visit SecondCity.com or call 416-343-0011.
Carly Maga
Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga

TORONTO STAR