TORONTO — The past few years for Second City Toronto have been challenging.
The improv and sketch comedy company was ousted from its home in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district in July 2019 to make room for a new highrise residential building. That sent it to a temporary performance and training space west of the city’s core as it awaited construction of a new venue.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and public health measures that sent people home and shuttered live event spaces. With at-home streaming suddenly the main source of comedy entertainment for most, Second City alum, comedian and actor Colin Mochrie wondered how Second City would lure audiences back.
That is the challenge now, Mochrie says as the Second City Toronto opened a sprawling new event space that commands the entire third floor of a downtown tower Wednesday.
“Over the pandemic, it really hit home what an essential service comedy is,” says Mochrie, whose TV credits include “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
“People, during lockdown, they were returning to their comfort sitcoms, and comedy specials.”
The new 2,600-square-metre space features a mainstage theatre that seats 244, a second space dubbed Theatre ’73 that seats 170, and a student stage named the John Candy Box Theatre that seats 70. The site also has a bar for guests and another bar for students, as well as nine studios for in-person classes and workshops.
While at their temporary space, Mochrie says the company continued to offer comedy classes and some performances remotely until restrictions eased.
But the pandemic also forced a shift in the comedy material performed by the cast, says Mochrie, noting the writing began to skew more heavily towards current affairs and politics, and he expected similar themes to continue in their new space.
Second City creative director Carly Heffernan says the new location feels like coming home.
She says the downtown location puts the storied comedy hub deeper into the city’s core, among the banking towers and office skyscrapers that define the Toronto skyline, and near other entertainment venues including Scotiabank Arena and the CN Tower.
It’s also now connected to the city’s underground PATH system with direct access to the subway system, GO Transit, Via Rail and the Union-Pearson Express, a rapid train to the airport.
“We love being back downtown,” says Heffernan, who joined Second City as a student when it was located on Blue Jays Way.
“We love being so close to the other iconic things that visitors to Toronto can take in.”
In 1988, Mochrie started at Second City’s first venue, The Old Fire Hall, where so many talented people performed from 1971 to 1997.
Mochrie recalls sharing that stage with Mike Myers, who later went on to join “Saturday Night Live” and launch a blockbuster film career. But before Mochrie joined the cast, he recalls watching Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin perform there, and says it was clear there was something special about them.
He says he had the pleasure of working with Levy, O’Hara, Martin and Martin Short in May 2008 during a fundraiser for Second City to help alumni experiencing health or financial hardships.
“It was the cast of SCTV and for me it was like getting a chance to play with the Beatles,” he says. “To be able to work with them at Second City was certainly one of the highlights of my career.”
He says many of the biggest alumni have maintained their ties to the Toronto arm of the legendary comedy factory that originated in Chicago in 1959.
“It’s pretty much like the mafia, once you’re in Second City, you never get out,” he says. “You never lose touch with those people because they are such an important part of your journey.”
The Second City Toronto moved to its second home in the entertainment district on Blue Jays Way in 1997, and that home was demolished last year after being slated for redevelopment.
Heffernan says the new venue pays homage to the Old Fire Hall by including a portion of the original flooring from the stage. It was installed in the John Candy Box Theatre.
The new venue also carries the Second City sign from its home on Blue Jays Way.
“Even though this is a big and shiny new building, we absolutely still love our Second City roots,” she says.
When it comes to kickstarting Toronto’s live entertainment hub after the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mochrie says he’s excited to see live shows in the new home.
© 2022 The Canadian Press