From the very beginning of the improv theater Second City, its name made clear that it wasn’t a New York institution and didn’t aspire to be.
But after 65 years, the Chicago-based institution that has strongly influenced modern comedy is opening an outpost on Monday in Brooklyn, in what is the First City. It’s a seemingly counterintuitive time to expand. Improv, once a thriving part of the comedy scene in New York, is at an ebb, and the company itself has been through tough times.
Two weeks before the lights were set to officially go up, Ed Wells, Second City’s chief executive, showed off its new 12,000-square-foot home on North Ninth Street in Williamsburg even as he acknowledged the headwinds facing the expansion.
There is a 190-seat main stage theater with a wraparound mezzanine and a 50-seat black box theater for student shows. A training center with classes for amateurs as well as a career-track conservatory program. The Bentwood restaurant, named after the chair that Second City actors use onstage, sometimes as a prop.
Wells said that the company was drawn to Williamsburg partly for its demographic mix. “You have a large local population that is looking for entertainment and nightlife and culinary experiences,” he said, noting that it is also popular with tourists. “You’re telling local New York stories that appeal to New Yorkers, but also appeal to the people that are coming to hear New York stories.”
The city’s improv scene shrank during the pandemic when the Upright Citizens Brigade closed its New York theater and training center in 2020; the Magnet and the Pit also scaled back. Lockdowns were one culprit, but the financial model was also called into question. In 2020, Second City faced economic problems as well as new criticism about the company’s lack of diversity and inclusion. In an open letter, company leaders wrote, “We are prepared to tear it all down and begin again.”
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