Abby Wagner said “Yes, And” when she took a job at Second City on a whim nearly 13 years ago. Since then, she’s risen from an intern in the accounting department all the way to the vice presidential level, where she oversees Second City’s training centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto. She also attended Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business, earning both an MBA and a bachelor’s degree from Loyola.
Though stationed in the back-of-the-house, Wagner has nonetheless internalized the improv performer’s credo. Expanding the company’s physical spaces and special projects requires that she “leap and leap fast and leap without fear. You just go for it.”
Such was the case this past March, when it became abundantly clear that Second City would need to temporarily shutter its theaters and the classes that usually take place inside. It was a frightening moment for the world in general and the arts in particular.
Wagner’s team mobilized quickly in those hectic spring days. Second City had offered virtual writing classes for close to 10 years. Could they move their improv classes online, too? “What we couldn’t do was just take what we do and put it on video. That doesn’t work,” Wagner says. “We had to really think through what we’re delivering, the time frame in which we’re delivering it, and then change all the curriculum.”
In the span of a week, 200 instructors ran hundreds of mock classes on Zoom, adjusting to life behind a laptop with their fellow comics serving as classroom guinea pigs. They recreated, as best they could, the ingredients that make collaborative performance so invigorating. “We could have sat around, as artists love to do, posturing on what works and doesn’t,” Wagner says. “Instead, we just went into beta mode.”
For the time being, the Second City Training Center is the company’s core business. Over 1,000 people per week are logging on to laugh. Virtual coaching is even available for those in search of personalized feedback. Wagner, in turn, learned not to make assumptions about how quickly people can adapt, and how eager they are for honest, creative connection.
Wagner is consistently touched by the notes of appreciation that flood in—Second City is both a beacon and a desperate lifeline. And she’s convinced that Internet improv will stick around long after her training centers resume normal operations. As it turns out, a lot of students taking these classes don’t live in Chicago or Hollywood. “We’ve tapped into this whole world of people who want to learn comedy,” Wagner says. “We’re not going to walk away from that when we’re back in our buildings.”
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