Former Champaign resident takes center stage at Second City

Former Champaign resident takes center stage at Second City

Former Champaign resident takes stage as part of e.t.c. ensemble

When Mary Sohn walks in to work at The Second City in Chicago, she thinks of those who came before her.

"Every day, I walk through those doors and I think, 'Man, this is where Bill Murray used to sit,'" she said.

She works at the same place where comedy greats like Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Sedaris and countless others once performed.

"It's so huge, it's hard to wrap my head about it," Sohn said in a phone interview last week.

Sohn, 29, grew up in Champaign and about 2 weeks ago joined the cast of The Second City's e.t.c. ensemble in Chicago. It's one of two resident casts: the theater has two stages, the Mainstage, founded in 1959, and the e.t.c., founded in 1983. Both stages host ensembles consisting of six actors, a musical director and a stage manager.

Sohn's parents, father Kee Soo and mother Eun Hee, still live in Champaign, and Sohn has warm memories of her years in C-U.

"When I went to ... college in Chicago, (I met) all these city kids who had this crazy life. It just make me really thankful and grateful that I got this normal upbringing," Sohn said.

She graduated from Centennial High and went on to the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"I was going to study medicine and then my friend took me to a show called 'Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,'" Sohn said. "I was just forever changed. That night, I was like, 'This is what I want to do.'"

So she changed her major to theater and also studied improv and acting at The Second City, where she had the chance to work with one of its founders, Bernie Sahlins.

"It was amazing and great fun," Sohn said of her time there. "(From) there, a lot of different groups evolved. I was in this group called Crying Diamonds. The producers saw that show and asked if I'd be an understudy for the e.t.c (ensemble)."

From there, she was asked to become a member of The Second City's touring company.

"Everyone's trajectory is so different. There's usually an audition to get into that touring company and somehow I bypassed that," Sohn said, adding that she wasn't sure she would have made it past an audition.

She toured for 2 years before working onto Second City's ship on the Norwegian Cruise Line.

"(The role) was one I felt I might have been a little too old for," Sohn said. "My motto that year was, I can't be too big for a gig."

That was when a producer asked Sohn if she'd be interested in joining e.t.c.

"My response was, 'Are you sure?'" Sohn said. "I was so surprised and so honored. That was about 2 weeks ago. It's been a lot of learning really quickly."

The ensemble rehearses during the day and performs at night. The actors have taken the skeleton of the show "Studs Terkel's Not Working" and are trying out new material within it.

"We'll take something there that we think has legs and try improvising it with a different audience," Sohn said. "We'll be like, 'OK, that feels good,' cycling in and out materials. ... If someone really enjoyed the show one night, the next night they can come in and see it with a few new scenes."

At The Second City, there's no telling how many hours she might work in a day. She and the ensemble perform six shows a week: one Thursday night, two Friday and Saturday nights and one Sunday night. They rehearse three or four hours before that, and there's no telling how long they might write ahead of time. The group is working on a new show, which doesn't yet have a title, to debut this spring, Sohn said.

She's still getting used to the schedule, but she said she loves it: the writing, rehearsing, performing and constantly thinking about what might work on the Second City stage.

"I have a really hard time going to sleep because I think about it all the time," Sohn said. "I spend probably about three hours (a day) writing, just trying to get out whatever these weird bits of ideas are, and sometimes that will result in something that I think, 'OK, I'm proud of that.'"

Her ideas don't always translate to the Second City stage, she said.

"I recently saw a show where this guy showed his butt," Sohn said. "I thought, that's really brave, I want to do that."

She then realized the idea might not work on stage, but said she feels grateful to have a director "who entertains these really stupid ideas."

That director, Bill Bungeroth, is just as happy to have Sohn in the cast of e.t.c. He'd directed her before, in a show in which Second City brought in outside groups to perform.

"This has been fun to start working together again in a much bigger setting," Bungeroth said, adding that the troupe just finished its first week of rehearsal. "I would say what makes Mary such an engaging performer is she's somebody the audience immediately relates to."

Some performers bring cynicism or cleverness to the show, he said.

"But Mary brings this kind of joy to the work where the audience seems (to) immediately side with her, no matter what character she's playing, which I think makes her a pivotal person in any cast."

Plus, she's good at bringing a wide variety of characters to the show, he said, "whether they're really big and physical characters to really vulnerable characters of humility.

"It seems like a lot of material is going to be generated out of that. She's also a really big concept figure ... as we start to work on some of the concepts. ... I think she's going to be a pretty dangerous satirist in her own right."

Sohn said the challenge with e.t.c. so far is finding her voice.

"In touring, there's not enough time to really come up with a ton of new stuff," Sohn said, and touring with Second City allowed her to pull from the theater's extensive archives. "There's some kind of safety behind that. You're doing other people's work. ... Now someone's saying to you, 'You have a voice. What is it?'"

And because she's been working for this opportunity for so long, she said she feels the need to prove herself.

"I feel like the stakes are a little higher (in) finding a good balance between what is universally funny and kind of a taste of what Chicago is about," Sohn said. "It's kind of like having to learn what is funny to all of us."

She's also honored to be the first Korean-American person on The Second City's stage, and the second person of Asian decent. But she thinks she was hired to the ensemble because of who she is, not because of her cultural heritage.

"Looking out in the Asian community, you don't see a lot of Asian comedians on TV or even doing what I do," Sohn said.

In the future, she's interested in creating and writing for TV shows. She's aware that many Second City alums went on to be comedy superstars, but "... there's been a lot of people who've come out of there and not been famous."

She's just trying to enjoy the experience.

"It's been a really fun ride," Sohn said. "I just feel fortunate that I never had to step on anyone ... to do what I like to do. Whoever said putting your head down and working hard to get what you want is right."

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