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College offers "Comedy Studies" at Chicago's famed Second City

CHICAGO --Thirteen students lie in a circle and stretch. They make monkey sounds to warm up their voices. Then they practice being funny.

"A ship," the instructor says. "The Mayflower." The students spring into action, morphing into the shape of a ship, one holding out her arms like the maiden on the bow and two rowing in the galley.

If this doesn't sound like college, it's because this isn't a normal classroom.

A new program at Columbia College Chicago allows students to take classes at The Second City, the humor mecca that has turned out some of America's best-known improvisational comedians. Students also attend shows, network with artists and present their work in a showcase -- all for college credit.


For aspiring performer Jennifer Ducharme, studying at The Second City "is exactly what I was looking for."

"I really wanted to get into comedy, especially improv; it's really what I need right now," said Ducharme, 20, of Webster, Mass., a theater arts major at Boston University who took a leave of absence to spend the semester in Chicago.

It's new territory for The Second City, where actors usually come to learn improv on the job. Among those who developed their funny bones there are the late Chris Farley and Gilda Radner -- both of whom became fixtures on "Saturday Night Live" -- and Steve Carell, star of "The Office."

Columbia and Second City officials have lofty goals for their collaboration, which they hope becomes the "Juilliard of comedy," said Anne Libera, executive artistic director of The Second City training center.

"We would have died to have been in a program that had all those things; it's the education that all of us wanted to have," said Libera, who was in a theater company that included Stephen Colbert, host of the satirical news program "The Colbert Report."

"There's nothing else like it in the country. It's gonna be big, it's gonna be very big," said Sheldon Patinkin, chair of Columbia College Chicago's theater department and one of the founding members of what was first the Playwrights Theatre Club, then The Compass Players and, finally, The Second City.

The idea for the program came about more than two years ago, when Andrew Alexander, Second City's executive producer and a member of Columbia College Chicago's board of trustees, had lunch with Patinkin and college president Warrick Carter.

During the lunch, Alexander mentioned that a college in Toronto had a program that included courses in improv, Patinkin said.

"I immediately said, `Oh, what a great idea, let's do that with Second City,'" Patinkin said. "It was a mutual thing, we all wanted to do it."

Students take a full load of six classes, including "Context for Comedy," "History and Analysis of Comedy" and "Creating Scenes through Improvisation."

While the training is as intense as other college programs, so is the cost. Tuition is $8,164, for the semester, plus an additional $230 for student fees. Students from out of town also must find their own housing.

Like many study-abroad programs, administrators will consider applicants from other universities. Candidates must be undergraduate juniors with an interest in performance, comedy writing, or improvisation.

"Ultimately, yes, you have to be funny. (But) in this program, I'm not looking for funny people yet, I'm looking for people who have the desire to do this work and to delve into this work," Libera said.

Most of the inaugural class' 17 students are theater majors or have drama backgrounds, said instructor Jet Eveleth, a veteran improv performer who also teaches at The Second City conservatory.

Students "already have a lot of acting experience, and that's a great foundation," Eveleth said. "Sometimes I'll work with groups, even graduate students, that aren't as free as them because they might not have the theater background."

However, a history of performing isn't necessary, Libera said.

"It's important to me that these people not just be theater majors, because I know that comedy writers and comedy performers tend to come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and that's important," Libera said.

Russell Chase, 22, of Hingham, Mass., a history major who plans to work in advertising after graduating from Connecticut College, couldn't resist applying after hearing about the program.

"I don't want to do the struggling acting thing," he joked. "But I was like, `Wow! That's so much better than sitting at a desk working on spreadsheets.'"

Chase said he's already interviewed at advertising firms in Boston and New York and gets the same response when recruiters find out he's studying at The Second City.

"They tell me, 'That's so creative,'" Chase said.


On the Net:

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