Second City @ Sea

| May 28, 2008

A talented comedic cast shares its improvisational skills with passengers on NCL's Jade.

Second City is a name universally identified with improvisational comedy, and many people believe it's a relatively recent entertainment phenomenon. But the seeds of Second City were planted at the University of Chicago during the 1950s. From its modest beginnings, it evolved to become The Player's Theater Club, then The Compass Players; finally in 1959 it became Second City, and was discovered by a larger audience as it drew capacity crowds to its venue in Chicago. When NBC's Saturday Night Live was born in 1975, its cast was made up almost entirely of members of the Second City troupe.

Many comedy stars of the past three decades are alumni of the Second City stage.

Second City comedy groups began hitting the high seas on Norwegian Cruise Lines' ships a few years ago. Today, the company has ensembles entertaining cruise passengers on seven NCL ships.

On the NCL Jade, a talented cast is taking part in an experiment aimed at increasing passengers' exposure to Second City. Besides performing in the Spinnaker International Cabaret five evenings during a 12-day cruise, the onboard comedy troupe is also conducting seminars during the day as a part of the NCL U initiative. These seminars teach passengers how they can use improvisational skills in everyday life, such as in business situations; there's even a seminar for kids, called Class Clown.

On other NCL ships, the Second City troupes have five performers, but with the increased workload on the Jade, the ensemble has been increased to eight members.

I was tremendously impressed with the range of talents of the group members brought together in the Jade's Second City ensemble. You'd naturally expect to see quick wit and expert timing in a comedy improv group, but there's much more to it. After seeing several shows, I became impressed with their other talents, including wonderful vocal and acting abilities. I was so impressed I arranged a group interview with the members of the eight-person ensemble.

Cast members included Cody Dove, Russ Bryant, Lauren Dowden, Mitchell Fain, Jennifer Goodhue, Jessica Joy, Tony Mendoza, and Diana Lawrence. One should make note of these names; from the talent I witnessed, a number of them could be destined for stardom.

Cody and Jennifer are the only two cast members who have performed on other NCL ships before coming to the Jade.

To choose a cast for the Jade's ensemble, auditions were held at Second City in Chicago in November and December 2007; the selected members were chosen in March, a month before they had to board the ship in Europe. They spent a month in intense rehearsals prior to heading overseas.

This led me to wonder: How does one rehearse "Improv"? All the members of the ensemble told me that they consider themselves to be actors first. They all shared the opinion that the best comedians are usually the best actors as well.

They spent their rehearsal time spent learning to act, reach each other, and react to each other -- developing personal connections to the point where they felt safe with each other -- safe in the sense of trusting one another to supply the support needed to pull off improvisational skits, and to make them appear seamless to the audience. They learned to lean on each other, so even when a line failed, they knew that another member could move the skit quickly beyond what may have been a stumbling point.

When they boarded the Jade, all eight members agreed they felt like a team, and eagerly anticipated their time on the ship.

Tony Mendoza moved to the desert when he was 18, and eventually found work at a radio station. Today he is still a member of Chicago's Annoyance Theater, for which he created an award-winning show about his days working as a bike messenger. He also plays in a band called Let's Get Out of the This Terrible Sandwich Shop. He joined the ensemble via the auditions held at Second City in Chicago.

Ross Bryant, from Chicago, previously toured the U.S. and Canada with a hip-hop comedy ensemble, The Beatbox. He also has performed with the Improvised Shakespeare Company, Comedy Sportz, and Baby Wants Candy. After auditioning for Second City in November, he was delighted to get the call notifying him he'd be going to sea on the Jade, and he jumped right into the rehearsal process in March.

Mitchell Fain's acting experience exemplifies the notion that the ensemble members are actors first. He's danced at Dance Chicago, had roles as a TV psychic, a disgruntled elf, and a Shakespearean king. He's also worked in several TV commercials, and appeared in two episodes of the TV show Friday Night Lights. While he considers himself an actor first, he loves the fact that as part of this ensemble he has the freedom to be an artist, both acting and improvising -- particularly because he has never done improv prior to this experience.

Jessica Joy began her acting career in 2004 in a teen "slasher" film. After appearances in LA and Cleveland performing in Tony n Tina's Wedding, The Ugly House, and the Indie Darlings, she found herself broke in Cleveland, and stumbled onto a book about Second City. That led to her audition, and she became a member of the Second City Troupe. She displayed a quick wit and humor during her performances on the Jade, but Jessica also has a lovely singing voice, and she freely admits music and song hold a special place in her heart.

Jennifer Goodhue is fellow Canadian. She studied theater, and considered herself a "serious actor," working as a waitress for six years and taking acting classes before she joined the Second City Toronto main stage shows. Jennifer wrote and performed in a number of shows, including Family Circus Maximus and Insanity Fair, and recently directed her first show, Persistence is Futile, in Toronto. Jennifer also appears on a Canadian TV show, Comedy Inc., which airs for its fifth season this summer.

She had previously done a stint with Cody in the Second City ensemble on the NCL Spirit, and anxiously joined the ensemble for the Jade because she loves the creative freedom the position allows.

Cody Dove, who's plied his craft previously on the NCL Spirit and Jewel, seemed to be the de facto leader of the ensemble. He was born into a New Mexico rodeo family, and says he started in the entertainment industry doing magic shows in the living room when he was nine. He had career stints in radio and television before joining The Second City in Cleveland. Then in 2006 he headed out on his first stint at sea on the NCL Spirit.

He is very excited with the ensemble put together for the Jade. he notes that all the performers come from different backgrounds, and each member brings different talents to the group, with the individual talents melding into a cohesive team.

I got to see Lauren Dowden perform, but she fell ill and missed our group interview. She obviously believes that "the show must go on," because in spite of her illness, she did not miss a performance. She has previously performed with Second City in Las Vegas, Cleveland, and Chicago, and has appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and regional productions in Chicago and Los Angeles of The Miracle Worker, Crimes of the Heart, Cloud 9, and others.

The eighth member of the cast, who was also not present at my interview with the ensemble, is the musical director, Diana Lawrence. Diana's career in musical direction has included many new musicals at the Theatre Building Chicago, the Chicago Children's Choir, and the Hyde Park School of Dance. Diana has showcased her original works at Davenport's Cabaret in Chicago, as well as many other Chicago clubs.

Like some other performing entities (e.g., Cirque du Soleil), Second City has become a large entertainment corporation, with stages in Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and Las Vegas, plus a number of touring companies aside from those working on the NCL fleet.

All members of the Jade's Second City cast agreed on one thing: Working on the Norwegian Cruise Line ships is one of the best jobs at Second City. They get to experience the adventure of travel while working at a job that only demands they play with one another and enjoy themselves.

I did ask all of them (because it's happened to me throughout my life), "What happens if, during a skit, you feel like you're not funny, or have said something inappropriate?"

The universal answer was, "every moment is different, and every moment is another opportunity. If at one moment you're not funny, the other team members carry the moment to the next moment -- the next opportunity."

Second City holds demo improvs, workshops and classes in all its land-based locations. If you feel you're an actor and comedic talent who could flourish in an ensemble cast, this could be your path to a career, including some time at sea.

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