Q&A: Ashley Botting & Becky Johnson
Tonight (Tuesday, June 16) at Second City there will be a passing of the torch from one fine comic to.
Tonight (Tuesday, June 16) at Second City there will be a passing of the torch from one fine comic to another. After a number of fine shows, Ashley Botting is leaving the mainstage cast and improviser/actor Becky Johnson (All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, Catch-23) is taking her place. After the show, Botting will be be joined by her current and past Second City casts to reprise some of her greatest sketches, like “Dudes” (see below). I sat down with them both at the Second City offices to discuss the change. You can get tickets for the current show here.
You two have performed improv onstage together, right?
Botting: Yes, but not as much as Id like.
Johnson: Well, youve been locked up in Second City for over a year.
Botting: Comedy jail. The best kind of jail.
Johnson: In the indie scene wed all be asking, When are you done at Second City? Because we want you in our show! You would be busy every night of the week.
Becky, youre taking over Ashleys role in the current Second City show. But your styles are how to put it? really different.
Johnson: Theres one scene near the top of the show where the other actor Etan [Muskat] told me I couldnt be a blushing flower, I had to be more sexually aggressive.
Botting: Yeah, we play characters who are talking about our sexual boundaries. I talk about punching him. We knew I had to be the aggressor. Wed tried it different ways with audiences to see what worked. And we discovered that if I was in any way prayed upon, it didnt work.
Johnson: In some ways, the expectation with understudies here is that you really have to get as close to the original performance as possible. But of course thats impossible youre different people.
Botting: Its a unique theatre in that we as the cast have to give our understudies notes. Theyre things like: If you want to do that line your own way and get a laugh, fine. But the timing of this particular joke is crucial. Or you have to look like this.
Johnson: Its unusual for theatre, but its not at all unusual in comedy. I talked to the new cast after a two-hour rehearsal, and as we went along, whoever else was in the scene would just give me notes. That would never be done in theatre. Comedy is really loose, and theres this respectful understanding among everyone that makes it work.
Becky, when did you find out you got the job?
Johnson: I think I auditioned a month ago, and then the offer came in two and a half weeks ago. I only other time I auditioned was 12 or 13 years ago.
Why wait 12 years?
Johnson: There were a lot of reasons why Second City didnt make sense to me personally back then. The big one was how much I liked touring. And around that first time, I was working with Graham [Wagner], and what we were doing was so messy and weird, I was in my early 20s. I was figuring out who I was. The stuff we were allowed to do on our own in weird spaces was incredible. It would make no sense at Second City. Sometimes it was a mess and a disaster, but people had paid $2 to watch us so it didnt matter.
Also: I didnt focus on acting. For the last 8 years, I was running City of Craft, an indie craft fair. I was performing in the indie comedy scene and acting, but it was hardly my career. And I liked that life then. Then I hit a point where I felt I was done with the art and crafts stuff, especially running the events. I handed it off this year. There was this myth of Oh, shes was too cool for this. Well, no. I had a day job that was also an indie art job, that I loved. I was happy doing it. It was good for my home life. I got to tour with Graham and then with Kayla [Lorette, her partner in the Sufferettes]. And with my husband, we toured with the craft fair. We lived out of a car for six months of the year, but he and I got to see North America in a way that never would have happened otherwise. A lot of it had to do with youthful wanderlust.
Ashley, you were with Second City, then you were gone, and then you came back. What was that all about?
Botting: I left in 2008 and it wasnt my decision, it was Second Citys decision. Unlike Becky, I really wanted to do Second City from the time I started improvising. I loved doing improv, and thought: What can my goal be? Second City mainstage! I rose up pretty quickly, did one mainstage show, and then was asked to leave, which was awful at the time.
But after that, I was able to go and do my own sketch and improv all over the city, and just figure out who I was as an improviser, not who someone expected me to be. I did that for six years and was having so much fun with Punch in the Box and Bonspiel, and other stuff, writing, travelling, and getting to know myself. Then a year and a half ago, they asked me to come back and replace Jan [Caruana]. And it was great. I was so ready. I thought: Now, I know how to do this job! Before I was trying to figure out how things worked. Now I knew how to do it. I knew what I wanted to say. I knew how to go after what I wanted. And I was grateful for that opportunity.
Did your process change the second time around?
Botting: I knew what I wanted, I knew what I wanted a scene to be and look like. I knew the voice of a scene. I didnt have the vocabulary before. And I did the second time around. Also, I was more comfortable being loud and heard and overriding what someone else said… respectfully. Standing up for myself.
All-time favourite Second City sketch?
Botting: “Dudes,” with Allie Price and Sarah Hillier. I loved everything about that sketch. Every night it was a joy. I remember when Kevin Whalen came in the cast, he said all of us came off the stage laughing, every night. It had this lovely heart and this hard-hitting point of view, which I was so proud of.
What will you miss most about Second City?
Botting: The job. Coming here and doing the stuff I have written for group of people that I didnt have to convince to come to the theatre. These are happy people who want to see comedy and might not see it otherwise. I love this job.
What wont you miss?
Botting: I wont miss being here eight times a week, all summer while writing a new show.
Becky, youre used to playing for some pretty alternative crowds. How will you make the transition to a more mainstream gig?
Johnson: On Friday I just did my last Catch-23 and thought, Oh, Im going to miss this crowd. Theyre so much like me. You can often go deeper with them. But its unique. Ive toured plays like All Our Happy Days Are Stupid and A Beautiful View. With View we went throughout Southern Ontario, and there were gay undertones in the show that some audiences werent into. And I thought, Oh, right, some people are homophobic.
As far as comedy goes, Im into the challenge. Kayla and I talk about it a lot. Theres pandering, and theres finding a way to express your voice to different audiences. You dont have to pander to deal with a more general audience. What struck me the most watching the show was how much people boo Harper or right-wing jokes. It just doesnt happen at Comedy Bar. Ive spent the last 20 years mostly preaching to the choir.
And you must do mainstream projects too…
Johnson: Yes, TV and corporate work. The adjustment isnt so big. I might not be able to make all these niche jokes, but if you go towards the universal, that will make anyone laugh. If you do something silly, anyone can get it.
Botting: Ive often thought with a show: This [joke] is for them, this [joke] is for me.
Johnson: Ive watched Second City shows for 15 years. I was always impressed when Id laugh at a joke and next to me someone not at all like me would be laughing for a completely different reason. The ability to get these layered laughs is the skill of Second City. I aspire to that.