Legendary comedy group to perform at Manship Theatre’s first gala
Hey, Anthony LeBlanc.
What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?
You graduated Loyola University in New Orleans with degrees in computer science and physics. Your goal was to land at NASA, that is, after earning your master’s degree in Chicago.
Chicago seemed a likely place for graduate school, because that’s where you were working for a nonprofit, teaching people about computer technology.
But Chicago also was home to The Second City, probably the country’s most legendary sketch comedy theater. And LeBlanc decided to audition for it.
This is how a guy like him is now working as a director in a theater whose alumni list reads like a roster for the ultimate Super Bowl comedy team.
John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner. They were all performing on The Second City stage before moving on to form the original cast of Saturday Night Live, which is a comedy legend in itself.
OK, so Murray didn’t join the cast until the second season after the departure of Chevy Chase, but that’s just a small technicality.
And if that example may be ancient history for some people, try this alumni group, instead: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
Oh, there are more. Lots more.
You see them on television and in movies every day. And though LeBlanc’s work has yet to be categorized as legend, it will be seen in Baton Rouge on Thursday, Nov. 8, when the Manship Theatre stages its first gala.
The theater is calling the event, Opening Night, where its audience members are the star of the show.
“We’ll have a red carpet and paparazzi,” Renee Chatelain said. “We’re encouraging people to come dressed as their favorite movie star.”
Chatelain is the theater’s executive director. She’s hoping to make Opening Night an annual event.
“We’ll have silent and live auctions,” she said. “And we’re excited to feature The Second City as our entertainment.”
The show will be performed by The Second City’s U.S. touring troupe, which customizes its performances for the cities
in which it performs.
Meaning the audience will be watching a one-of-a-kind show filled with Baton Rouge and Louisiana humor.
“And there are some skits we perform with humor that’s universal,” LeBlanc said. “One of them is Steve Carell’s sketch about relationships. It’s something everyone can relate to no matter where they are. Steve Carell wrote it when he was at Second City.”
And LeBlanc directs it. He, in fact, is director of the entire show that will be coming to Baton Rouge.
A thought that thrilled him upon learning that the traveling troupe would be playing the Manship Theatre. Though Beaumont, Texas, is his hometown, he considers South Louisiana his territory.
He has extended family in Opelousas, and again, he’s a graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans. And the Interstate 10 corridor from New Orleans to Beaumont is second nature to him.
Having his show play in Baton Rouge is like sending it to a hometown crowd.
“But I won’t be there for it,” LeBlanc said.
That’s how it works in theater. The director puts the show together in rehearsals, shapes and polishes it for the stage. Then he or she moves on to the next project when performances begin.
And that’s unfortunate, because LeBlanc really would love to be in Baton Rouge for Opening Night. There are so many things he misses about Louisiana, but the food isn’t one of them.
Now don’t work yourself into an outrage. There’s a reason a guy with a last name like LeBlanc doesn’t miss such trademark Louisiana dishes as gumbo and crawfish etouffée .
“I do a lot of my own Louisiana cooking in Chicago,” he said.
“Beaumont may be in Texas, but it has its own share of Cajuns and Creoles. And when I visit, I always pick up a lot of Louisiana food products to bring back with me.”
Mom also helps out in supplying him with needed ingredients.
“I’m lucky to have such an aggressive mom,” LeBlanc said. “When I first moved to Chicago, she started talking to me about what I would need for the winter.”
And mom was right. Winters in Chicago are cold, but that doesn’t deter from the Second City’s comedy. If anything, it adds to it, because everything is fair game in Second City’s comedy realm.
Politics, people, the economy, headlines, reality television, movies, even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“He was already a good subject while he was chief of staff in the White House before he was mayor because of his colorful language,” LeBlanc said. “Chicago has a lot of good subjects.”
As will Baton Rouge, but LeBlanc isn’t giving anything away. Neither is Chatelain.
“We don’t want to talk about specifics, because we want it to be a surprise,” she said.
Second City usually send writers to a city before sending out its touring troupe. The process is simple but takes time. The theater contacts the venue in which it will be performing and works with local staff to form ideas.
Writers then travel to the city to soak in its flavor, read its news, meet its people and mine ideas. From that, a show is put together and usually is performed during an extended stay.
The troupe performs its topical comedy revues worldwide in performing arts centers, theaters, colleges and universities, festivals and fundraisers.
The Baton Rouge appearance will be a shortened version of Second City’s customized shows. It will play only one night, but the fun will be the same as company members incorporate improvisation and pull audience members into the action.
Yes, there will be audience participation. In fact, tickets are being sold for some audience seats on stage.
“And if you’re on stage, there’s a big possibility that you might be in a skit,” Chatelain said. “It’s amazing how they turn it around so fast.”
That’s always been the nature of The Second City, which opened its doors on a snowy Chicago night in December 1959. Who would have thought a small cabaret theater would become the most influential and prolific comedy theater in the world?
But it has.
“With its roots in the improvisational games of Viola Spolin, The Second City developed an entirely unique way of creating and performing comedy,” the company states in its history on its website, http://www.secondcity.com. “Founded by Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, along with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins, The Second City was experimental and unconventional in its approach to both theater and comedy. At a time when mother-in-law jokes were more the fashion, The Second City railed against the conformist culture with scenes that spoke to a younger generation.”
Continuing, “the Broadway success of Mike Nichols and Elaine May — members of The Second City’s precessor, the Compass Players — put attention on the fledgling company.
Soon, alumni of The Second City — such as Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Robert Klein, David Steinberg and Fred Willard — began to cement the theater’s reputation for developing the finest comedic voices of each and every generation.”
Then came the debut of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1975, featuring a cast filled with a majority of Second City alumni, launching The Second City to international fame with its ever increasing roster of comedy superstars.
Later, The Second City’s sister theater in Canada developed its own sketch comedy television series, SCTV, featuring an all-star cast that included Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty and Rick Moranis.
Fans of this show will remember the McKenzie Brothers sketch featuring Thomas and Moranis. That sketch eventually produced a comedy album, as well as the film, Strange Brew.
“Today, The Second City continues to produce the premiere comic talent in the industry,” its history statement concludes. “From Mike Myers to Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert to Tina Fey — the Second City imprint is felt across every entertainment medium.”
The company also has grown well beyond a single stage to become a diversified entertainment company, including Second City Training Centers in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles, four touring companies and Second City Communications, which has become an industry leader in bringing improv-based methodologies to the corporate sector.
LeBlanc started out in one of the theater company’s training programs. Well, that’s not entirely true. His comedy career really began in New Orleans while working as a resident assistant in a dormitory at Loyola.
LeBlanc always put on a skit to welcome the new residents. One semester, a group of theater students walked over to watch the skit.
“They said, ‘Hey, you’re really funny,’” LeBlanc said. “So, they asked if I wanted to be in their improv theater group. We were the first improv theater group in New Orleans.”
LeBlanc stayed with the group through college, then moved to Chicago after graduation. His dream was to work for NASA, the space agency that shot to international prominence after sending a man to the moon and continued to make a difference in the world thereafter.
It’s what he wanted to do — to make a difference in the world through science and technology.
His work with the nonprofit group in Chicago was only to last a year, but the group asked him to stay when his time was up. He agreed then started to look for something to do in his off time while in the Windy City.
So, he put his theatrical skills to use. He’d had experience in sketch comedy and improvisation. He took a chance and auditioned for The Second City, which placed him in one of its training programs.
From there, it was to the traveling troupe then to the Main Stage cast.
The Main Stage is the most prominent spot for Second City cast members. It’s where stars are born.
“I never thought I’d make it to the Main Stage, but I did,” LeBlanc said. “And now I’m directing.”
He also realizes that through comedy and theater, he’s making a difference. Sometimes he thinks about his goals, about NASA. But he also knows that The Second City has influenced change through comedy in its history.
“I know I’m making a difference,’ he said. “And I would like to look toward movies and television in the future. But right now, I’m happy here at The Second City. I’m happy with what I’m doing, because I know it makes a difference.”
Which is how a guy like Andrew LeBlanc has ended up in a place like this.
Because there’s no place like The Second City.