UW alumni teaching improv at ‘The Second City’

UW Business and Mathematics alumini, Rob Michaels, teaches improv for kids.
Photo by Vishal Lilman

What do you get when you cross strict orders to stay at home, UW alumni, and one of the largest comedy institutions in the world?

The answer – online classes offered by The Second City!

This is no joke – you can now learn the basics of comedy in the areas of improv, stand-up, writing, and acting, all from the comfort of your own home with virtual classes and workshops offered by The Second City in Toronto.

Rob Michaels, a UW alumni who completed a double degree in Business and Mathematics, states that learning improv from a young age develops and strengthens core principles such as working in a team, thinking on the spot, collaborating with others, and sharing ideas—all skills that he found very useful and dominant in his business career. 

After taking some improv classes during his free time at The Second City, Michaels decided to commit fully to his passion for comedy by becoming a course instructor and teaching improv for kids, aged four to seventeen.

“It’s a good way to work with others, get your ideas out there, and be vocal! What I find is that some kids are very energetic and outgoing, while some kids are not so much. These classes are a great way to break out of their shell and have a good time, while still learning about improv at different levels, and then have those skills that you can apply in school, life, and work, whether it’s trying to be the life of the party, or doing a presentation,” Michaels said.

The Second City also has classes in stand-up, taught by UW alumni Lianne Mauladin and Todd Van Allen, who completed their degrees in Mathematics and Teaching respectively. Participants can do a stand-up ‘Escape,’ drop-in session or learn stand-up ‘head on’ with ‘Stand-Up I’ and ‘Stand-Up II’ classes.

Photo by Vishal Lilman

Differentiating between the two classes, Van Allen said, “Stand-Up I is kind of like ‘Level A Improv’ at The Second City in that it’s the very beginning.”

 “It’s where you go to sort of learn about the craft. It’s a seven-week course, and at the beginning of the course they come in with basically nothing, just a desire to see what stand-up is and how to do it. Over the course of seven weeks we teach them [the] tricks [of] the trade, and we collaborate and help each other out with jokes, joke writing, stage presence, and that sort of thing.” Van Allen said that by the end of the course, participants should have five minutes of original stand-up material.

In ‘Stand-Up II’, participants will have the opportunity to perform a new stand-up routine every week in an open-mic fashion. As Van Allen puts it, “It’s also different styles of writing. You go through different exercises and themes such as observational material, storytelling, current events, etc. Whatever the exercise is that week that’s what they are going to have to write about and come up with new jokes based on that subject and style.”

Speaking about his career switch, Van Allen said he did stand-up as a UW student, but then he took a break from it after he graduated. “I just felt icky. I wanted to go back into doing stand-up, but I didn’t know how,” Van Allen recalls. He then took courses at The Second City, starting with improv and eventually getting back into stand-up. “There was a stand-up program created at The Second City, it has been going for a while and is quite successful. Over that time Kevin Frank, who is the director of training, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to teach stand-up.”

Mauladin, who graduated from UW with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, described the stand-up program as a great mix of people with different professional backgrounds, coming together with the common theme of humor. “There are a lot of funny people, but they don’t get the opportunity to perform their jokes in front of an audience, so that is something we hone,” Mauladin said.

The program is also a great way to build confidence and stage presence. “People come in and they want to work on building their confidence and incorporating humor in their presentations, or lectures even. I recently had a UofT professor in my class because he wanted to incorporate humour in his lectures.” Mauladin explains.

Introduced in Toronto in the 70s, The Second City has launched the careers of names such as Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Lauren Ash, and Bob Odenkirk. “This is the place to get your start,” Julie Dumais Osborne, The Second City’s artistic director, said.

Predominantly known for improvised sketch comedy, The Second City has stuck with its theme of improv and “scrappy beginnings” by switching from an in-person class, to a virtual training experience – one that is unique and “once in a lifetime,” as Dumais Osborne describes it. While most participants at the in-class workshops are living around Toronto and surrounding areas, this is not the case with the online classes.

When asked about her experience teaching online, Mauladin states, “I had a student in one of my online classes taking the class from Germany! And I had another student taking the class from LA. For students, it’s a unique experience for feedback. For example, a student might put forth a joke she said in LA, and the LA audience reacted in this way, but what would be the reaction of a Canadian audience? Audiences do change from place to place, so this is an asset to learning to have people coming from different perspectives.”

Photo by Vishal Lilman

As we all get adjusted to our new reality, now is a better time than ever to let loose and have a laugh. “Comedy is so essential as there is so much uncertainty,” Dumais Osborne remarks. “It’s just a scary time with variables nobody can control. We’re just coming together to do something that is joyful, collaborative, and feels social in a time where everyone is feeling isolated. [Comedy is] an incredible outlet and in some ways very therapeutic. And it’s a nice little escape for what is a non-stop news cycle.”


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