He and other leaders want Second City to be “an agent of change,” he added. When productions are honed in front of homogeneous, majority-white audiences, it rewards their point of view, he said. Now, the theater needs to take stock as an artistic entity: “That’s what those folks find funny. Is that what we want our shows to be? Is that standard a high enough bar for what we need to do?”
The revamp is tangible, starting with the photos of alumni adorning the theater’s lobby — a sea of white faces, to be replaced with a newer, and more diverse, roster of performers.
Then there is the material itself: the company leans heavily on its archives, asking students and touring artists to delve into a catalog of thousands of sketches from its 60-year history. Characters of color are largely absent or rife with stereotypes. “I had nothing,” Peter Kim, the first openly gay Asian man hired for the mainstage, said of his experience as a touring performer in 2014. Now a committee will cull through the archives and reject sketches and scenarios that might be offensive (like those that led white directors to use the N-word, which Perkins experienced).
This is the easy stuff. Because it’s not just about who gets onstage or what they say there, Johnston said, adding that is where Second City had fallen “significantly short” before. Focusing on representation “was far too narrow,” he said.
Now they are considering every facet of their connections: “The interactions between our producing teams and our talent, our teachers and our students, our students and our students, our night staff and our audiences,” he said. “What does the physical environment look like, what are we putting out on the road, how are we diversifying our audiences, how are we coaching up our teachers to deal with a lot of very nuanced subject matter?”
Some of that was acknowledged in previous diversity efforts, but “we didn’t get it through to an operating level, and that is clearly what’s changed,” Johnston said. “That was the gift in the letter we received from our BIPOC alumni,” he said, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. The company is planning to spend around seven figures, he said, to make things right.