[Departure Lounge]

See ya later, improvisators

Second City’s closing has bigger implications for the future of improvisation in Las Vegas


They make their living with nonstop energy on stage, careening wildly from one idea to the next, never sure if anything will stick, and frankly not really caring for fear of that dreaded silence. But this particular afternoon Michael Lehrer and Robyn Norris, improvisational artists who perform in Las Vegas’ Second City show, are surprisingly subdued.

Not long before our interview, Chicago-based Second City announced it will cancel its show at the Flamingo after the August 1 performance. Kelly Leonard, vice president of Second City, explained that the 200-seat theater has proven to be a “challenge” over the show’s eight-year run, and that the company is taking advantage of its expiring contract to pursue other opportunities.

“The market is tough right now,” Leonard says. “We’re in the 50-percent [of seating] capacity, and when you have a 1,000-seat theater, you can make that work well. With 200 seats, it becomes a very expensive room.”

There’s a chance the show will continue locally—Leonard says the company is exploring options for a bigger theater—but most of its five-member cast will be gone as of August, including Lehrer and Norris, who are Atlanta-bound to star in a play, after which they will perform on a cruise ship. (So will Katie Neff, another cast member who’s already left the show. Rob Belushi is currently involved in a play in Chicago and will remain there.)

Leaving Las Vegas is hardly the end of the world for the pair, who have been here about eight months each. Still, they are both quite fond of the show they’ve helped create, and there’s a sense of an even greater concern hovering throughout our conversation—the future of improvisation in Sin City.

When Second City arrived, improvisation “didn’t really exist,” Leonard says. In addition to the show, the company established the Second City Training Center to foster a love of the craft locally. Students who studied at the company’s rented space at O’Sheas (the final class was Monday) got to use what they learned at the Student Experimental Theater (SET) at the Onyx Theater on Monday nights.

The program now tops more than 100 students, and while the Second City name will no longer be on the banner, at least one of the cast members, Las Vegas native Paul Mattingly, will remain involved with SET, along with Liz Allen, a former Second City director and instructor.

But without a theater and performing company, all agree keeping improvisation alive in Las Vegas will be a daunting challenge.

“It’s certainly going to be more difficult without the Second City brand, but you never know what might happen from people’s creative spirit,” Lehrer says.

“It will certainly hurt that we’re not there,” Leonard says. “But hopefully high schools and colleges can help keep the interest level high.” (Recent budget cuts will probably dictate much differently.)

In addition, if Las Vegas loses its theater for good, it will be the last new theater from Second City in quite some time. Las Vegas notwithstanding, Leonard says the company is not planning to open any more theaters for the foreseeable future. “We have a thriving television and film division in LA, development deals with NBC Universal, an announced partnership with MRC (Media Rights Capital) and are launching an entertainment web portal soon.” He added that the company’s partnership with Norweigian Cruise Lines has been phenomenally successful, and that it will expand from seven ships to nine by the end of the year.

From the stage to cruise ships? Certainly there’s an implied loss of prestige in that transition, and it’s doubtful you’d get any performer to speak honestly about how they feel about performing on one, but I felt compelled to ask Lehrer and Norris anyway:

Said Norris, “I have not gone on one yet. Michael has.” (Lehrer did not comment.) “I think it’s going to be an amazing experience, getting the Second City name out there. But I don’t think I’d want to be on a cruise ship long term.”

In any business, you have to go where the money is, but in the case of Second City, undisputably the No. 1 breeding ground for the top comedic talent of the last 40 years, you can’t help but think something of real value is being lost along with a small theater and a name on a banner.

“On an overall note, it’s sad because the show we do here is a great show, and we gave people great entertainment every show,” Lehrer says. “On a personal level, I don’t mind because I was here eight months and did hundreds of shows, and it’s exciting going to Atlanta. But I certainly hope for future improvisers that Second City re-establishes itself here, because it’s just great for the community.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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