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Second City Class a Crash Course on Storefront Theater Business

By Paul Biasco | September 17, 2013 8:05am
 Edgar Blackmon (l.) and Ross Bryant, members of The Second City Mainstage, perform during a production of "Let Them Eat Chaos."
Edgar Blackmon (l.) and Ross Bryant, members of The Second City Mainstage, perform during a production of "Let Them Eat Chaos."
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Clayton Hauck

OLD TOWN — Teaching funny has been the The Second City Training Center's M.O. for decades — churning out stars by the dozen — but a new class aims to make sure budding talent doesn't go broke.

Producing 101 is a sort of crash course on how to take an idea, set up a run at one of Chicago's more than 200 theaters, and get butts in seats.

"One of the great things about Chicago is that you can absolutely — if you have an idea for a show and have about $500 — put up a show," said the class's creator, Angie McMahon.

McMahon, a playwright and Founding Director of Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, spent the past 13 years independently producing shows and thought the class would spare future talent from the trial-by-fire troubles she faced.

"I made a lot of mistakes. I ticked a lot of people off. I was really young, 21 ..." she said.

About a year ago, McMahon decided she built up enough knowledge on how to produce a successful show, and in January launched the first Producing 101.

The class is thought to be the only of its kind in the country, which is fitting because no other American city matches Chicago's intimate storefront theater scene, McMahon said.

Each session during the eight-week class features a different speaker — many of whom are alumni of Second City — who cover topics such as finding a venue, buying insurance, how to raise money and how to get a critic to attend.

"It's really intimidating for most actors or writers who don't have a business background," said Jeff Award-winning director Matt Hovde, who directed Second City's current Mainstage revue Let Them Eat Chaos and "Studs Terkel’s Not Working."

"They don't really understand what a press release is, so they are coming at this from a zero-knowledge standpoint."

When he got his start, Hovde, who is the training center's artistic director, started a sketch comedy group with with a friend who had an MBA.

He admits that played a large roll in early successes.

"I lucked out and aligned myself with a sugar daddy," Hovde said. "Really, we wouldn't have been able to do it without" the MBA.

So far, three or four students who have taken the class have gone on to produce independent projects that have been reviewed, McMahon said.

Two of the students from her first class formed The Crowded Tub Collective theater company, raised about $3,000 and put on a production of "Romeo and Juliet."

"It was amazing that I actually taught someone something that was helpful," McMahon said. "You can really end up financially hurting yourself, especially if you're a broke artist."

Following the early success of the Producing 101 program, McMahon is accepting applications for a brand new Producing 102 class.

Members of the more advanced class will become the production team for the Sketch Ensemble Project and get real-world experience producing the show.

"It fills a niche that we have never had here, the blending of the theater world with the sketch and improv," Hovde said. "There's a lot of people, especially younger improvisers and young comedians. Part of the idea was to educate about how our theaters work."