Tokyo’s Second City to train performers for theatre

Second City’s Kelly Leonard

SECOND CITY ANNOUNCED their first theater opening outside North America. As first reported February 15 by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune, the comedy behemoth is joining with entertainment and talent management firm Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd. to teach Second City’s improv-based comedy in a new training center. 

It will eventually provide performers for a permanent theater in Tokyo.

Second City’s EVP Kelly Leonard says that the idea of going international has been on the Second City drawing board for years, but only taken shape recently. “We were hired by MTV in Spain to come and lead some improv workshops with translators, and it went really, really well,” he says.

The impetus for the Japanese center came about in part through Japanese-American actor Masi Oka (“Heroes,” “Hawaii Five-0”)who studied at Second City’s Los Angeles training center. “Masi called us and said ‘Will you talk to these guys [at Yoshimoto Kogyo]? I think it’s a perfect marriage.” We realized that we were exactly alike with completely different specialties.”

The difference, says Leonard, is that “We train our talent, who then produce content that we own. They train talent who don’t produce content that they own, but they manage that talent.”

According to Jones’ report, the talent managed by Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo includes 90% of the comedy stars in Japan, along with baseball player Kosuke Fukudome, who recently moved from North Side to South Side and signed with the White Sox.

Bridging the cultural differences  

The next step, says Leonard, is filming a documentary about how Second City works that will be used in building the training for the Japanese performers. Second City is also working with consultants from the Japanese government to understand some of the cultural differences in comedy between the two countries.

In an interview with Jones, Oka, who is also consulting with Yoshimoto, pointed out that satirical jabs at authority figures have long been frowned upon in Japan, where physical comedy and vaudeville-style stand-up holds sway.

Leonard says “Their culture is one in which you couldn’t have grown a Second City even ten years ago. But they are now being exposed to different principles like ours: ensemble-based, anti-authoritarian, diametrically opposed to how it’s gone in Japan in the past. They are interested in being ahead of the curve.”

Methodology and format to be properly introduced

Leonard also emphasizes that the onstage talent will be homegrown in Japan, and that the Tokyo theater will not be a long-distance pit stop for an American touring company.

“I’ve had a number of people who don’t speak Japanese contacting me for jobs there,” notes Leonard with a laugh. “We have a few bilingual teachers we know can do translation. We can properly introduce the methodology and format.”

Leonard also promises that the Japanese Second City will remain faithful to a core principle of the company: “Making an audience laugh is easy. Making an audience laugh and think is the hard part.”