Fear and Laughing

The Second City comedy troupe brings its sketchy characters to Washington

Nicole C. Hastings, far left, first joined the Second City as a student. She and the sketch troupe perform this weekend at the Shakespeare Theatre.

As a student with the legendary Chicago-based improv-comedy troupe the Second City, Nicole C. Hastings learned that sometimes it’s best to let your face do the talking.

“There’s a lot of power in not speaking right away,” she says of improvising. “It’s not like I never say anything that gets laughs. But I will employ a large reaction and it will hit more often than you think.”

Hastings will put that technique to the test in Washington this weekend as the Second City’s touring company brings its Laugh Out Loud tour to the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre. The show is sketch-based, a la “Saturday Night Live,” with improvised pieces sprinkled in.

“There will be a decent amount of political stuff and a lot of relationship-based scenes,” all scripted, Hastings says. In one sketch, a groom-to-be freaks out about his impending wedding — a setup both relatable and with high slapstick potential.

Hastings, who is in her second year of touring and still works a part-time day job in Chicago, started training at the Second City in 2008. And though she had prior stage experience, nothing prepared her for one of the nation’s premier comedy boot camps.

“I was genuinely terrified when I first was taking Second City classes,” she says. “Getting up in front of the class was scary even though I had acted before and taken a couple of improv classes before.”

That’s pretty much the Second City playbook: to scare the fear right out of its performers. Nearly five years later, Hastings is now the most seasoned member of her touring ensemble.

“At a certain point it stops being scary and starts being really fun,” she says. “There’s a certain freedom that comes with that. And it can only come out of a certain amount of confidence in the fact that it’s OK to get out there and look like an idiot.”

Backstory

Chicago’s Second City has been pumping out legends of comedy for more than 50 years. Go back to the ’60s, and alumni include Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers and Peter Boyle. In the ’70s, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were students. Other future “Saturday Night Live” cast members studied there in the ’80s, including Mike Myers, Chris Farley and Tim Meadows. And the ’90s brought us Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.

Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW; Fri., 8 & 10:30 p.m., Sat., 7:15 & 9:45 p.m., $25-$45; 202-547-1122. (Archives)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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Marc Silver · July 26, 2012