BWW Interview: Clare McConnell on Using Comedy to Forge Connections
Clare McConnell has made a name for herself as a dynamic force in the world of Toronto comedy . Her work with the Second City allows her to transition her own experiences and feelings into content and share it on a national level, in addition to her work with film and television, and in an interview with BroadwayWorld she delves into the details of her creative process, working with her colleagues, and tackling nerves.
The actor grew up in Calgary, and her love for improv has stuck with her since her teenage years. After moving to Toronto, McConnell split her time between theatre school and shows at Bad Dog and Comedy Bar. After grounding herself in the city's comedy scene, McConnell auditioned for the Second City and became part of the house company before moving to the touring company, where she's been working for nearly two years.
As a member of the Second City's Touring Company, McConnell and her colleagues draw from a wealth of company archives and personal experiences to develop their revues. On whether she prefers adapting existing content or creating her own work, McConnell laughs. "I like making my own stuff, for sure - it's exciting to take a point of view that I have on something and bring it to life, whether that be through a character, or through a more grounded scene. That's really what all of it's about, is how can I communicate this idea and maybe trick someone into seeing a new perspective? I think its important to remember that even in our wacky scenes, we have a responsibility to share a perspective within that - even if it's a sweeter message, nothing is meaningless on that stage."
As a woman in 2019, living in a city as large and diverse as Toronto, McConnell has a wealth of experiences and ideas to draw inspiration from. "Things that I am angry or confused about tend to be a good baseline, things that don't make sense to me. For instance, in our last Valentines show Natalie Metcalfe and I did a scene called Diva Cup which is about a woman who's feeling awkward asking questions to a Shoppers Drug Mart employee about buying a diva cup. I play this very devil-may-care lady who's just openly talking about all this stuff, because I'm like, why don't we talk about that? I learned so much about my body as a woman so much later than I would have liked to. It's a good place to start, with things that are confusing or frustrating. My favourite thing is when you're doing a scene and you see someone grab someone and you can hear them whisper 'that's you!' or like, 'that's what we were talking about!' That's the dream."
Although McConnell has been a member of the touring ensemble for a few years, she's not alone in the creative process. She names her colleagues as a key source of support during the development and presentation of new pieces and attributes her comfort with the company to the fact that the touring company has remained fairly unchanged for awhile. "It's nice to have the same team because you get to know each other and fall in love as performers, and you get to know each others' habits. There's a level of trust there that I've never experienced in another group because we do a lot of scary things together, often we're putting really vulnerable scenes up on stage together so there has to be that love and a sense of belonging and just that knowledge that even if this is a piece of garbage, we still love each other and we have each other's backs."
Aside from her stage work, McConnell has acted in various film and television roles, including Star Trek Discovery, Murdoch Mysteries, and Coroner. "In a way it's different, but I think when stage work is really good and when film work is really good it comes down to the same principle of just connecting. And as much as I can do wacky, huge things on stage at the Second City, it still really comes down to that, to looking into the eyes of whoever I'm performing with and being like, 'I see you and I'm listening to you.' I try to remember that, otherwise it gets really nerve-wracking to do film and television."
While she's much more familiar with stage work, McConnell's nerves still affect her prior to curtains at the Second City. On whether she hopes they subside over time, she laughs. "I will be sad if that ever goes away, it makes me feel alive."
The Second City and its performers have evolved over the years to become a voice for political and societal commentary in Toronto's live entertainment scene, something that McConnell takes seriously in her work. "It was a big learning curve for me, I grew up with more Monty Python absurdist stuff, which is very much not the Second City brand. I think there's much more of a sense of responsibility now to talk about the scary things that are happening in the world. The work that's being done now is much more satirical and hard hitting politically, and the work that was being done awhile ago, a lot of it unfortunately can't be used because times have changed and things you can joke about have changed."
McConnell explains that archived scenes are sometimes rewritten to suit modern audiences, although the core messages are upheld. "I like to remember they were doing progressive work for that time. It's not that they were racist or sexist, it's all about punching up, and examining who can we hit and who is in a place of privilege. A lot of the time they were punching up, but now we punch even higher up because we can, because we have a responsibility to everyone who feels othered or separate to give them a sense of belonging."
"There's a scene that Jillian Welsh and I did in the last Christmas show where we played two women at the end of a holiday party, who were the last ones tidying up and who are clearly very into each other - and by the end of the scene, spoiler alert, that's revealed. A lot of people told me after how much that meant to them, to see that represented onstage, and I had no idea of the impact that could have on somebody so I'm excited to create more work that makes someone feel like that."
"There are times in that theatre where people are crying, it happens. I think it's because comedy can take people to this unguarded, childlike place and then because they've taken the shell off there's space to send a little message through that might not have gone through if you talked to them on the street. If I went up to someone on the street and talked about LGBTQ rights, that would not have nearly the same effect on someone as if they're in this place of letting go and laughing, and then it slips through with the message of 'hey, everyone's a person and we should all love each other.'"
Clare McConnell performs with the Second City Touring Company across Canada. You can also catch her on CBC's Murdoch Mysteries and Coroner, and CBS's Star Trek Discovery.
Photo courtesy of The Second City