The Second City Training Center House Ensemble, often called HouseCO, is an extension of the training program at Second City. Second City makes it abundantly clear that you do not work for them yet and this is still part of their training program. This doesn't mean that they don't take it seriously. The program is difficult to get into and Second City is very transparent about the whole process. You're getting a year long commitment of weekly Saturday shows being directed by some of the best in the business, and you get access to resources that are typically reserved for those cast by Second City.
While level A-E will teach you the basics of improv and Second City Conservatory teaches you the basics of putting up a show, HouseCo teaches you what it's like to work for Second City. Running orders changing minutes before the start of a show, performing a sketch that you've only just written hours before, and last minute recastings are common. Becoming a great performer is learning to perform at a high level with those kinds of changes. Not only does Second City use improv as a tool to write great sketch, but it also uses it as a structure of performing sketch shows. If you're the kind of person who needs everything to be perfect before you go on stage then you probably wouldn't like this.
The program consists of 4 parts that have no set time, but usually last 2-3 months. Every week we had a Saturday night show in The de Maat Theatre at Second City. Our rehearsals would be an hour or two before our performances.
This is the introduction to the program and it's completely improvised. I learned how to perform the style of improv that Second City likes and the kind that will help in sketch. It's a great mix of improv games and montages. This was easily the most fun I had during the program. We had a great time slot, 9pm, so we always had a packed house and we had a ton of freedom to find ourselves as an ensemble.
Performing long form improvised sets in specific styles like westerners, a David Mamet play, horror, and so on. This was the biggest challenge for me because I was used to playing in 20 or 30 minute sets. If I was performing for more than that then typically it was broken up into games, sketch, and/or long form. In Moxie I was performing long form improv for 45 minutes to an hour. It's a different muscle and it really makes you keep things in your back pocket for later. That makes these shows a little more difficult to perform, but when they go right they are some of the most amazing shows to see.
Improv to sketch and testing sketch material. A lot of this consisted of pitching funny ideas you had before the show, going over what the beats would be, and then performing them on stage later that night. We would also periodically test out written material. This is where it really started to feel like working for Second City. We were expected to perform at a high level with little preparation. A lot of times the host of the night would be introducing our show while we were still backstage assigning improv games and scenes. After a couple weeks it became second nature and I now prefer it to being overly prepared for a show.
The Show: At the end of the program you get to perform in your own sketch review with the people that you've been performing with over the past year. This is the easy part of the whole program. You have your running order down and everyone is already assigned roles. Just go out every week and perform your show.
So what did I think of the whole thing? It was amazing. I really grew as a performer and I learned more than I ever could in a standard class. I got great one on one coaching from directors that were not only fantastic, but showed that they really cared about the cast. On top of that you get to perform with some of the best performers in the city. This past year has been amazing for me thanks in large part to my experience in HouseCO. I graduated from the year long Conservatory program, immediately after performed for 5 weeks in the Skybox theater, and then performed for a whole year with HouseCO. So for over two years I was in that building at LEAST once a week performing, practicing, and learning. If that didn't make me a better performer then I don't know would. If you ever get the chance to audition or see a show I highly suggest it.
Filed under: Behind Improv