LGBTQ sketch-comedy group GayCo put on its first revue, Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem, at the Second City in 1996. The Reader's Mary Shen Barnridge wrote that it kept its "focus tight and its humor accessible to audiences straight and gay, in the know or out of touch." The performance was born out of a comedy workshop created after Second City administrative director Ed Garza discovered the word "fag" scrawled across the wall in one of the training-center classrooms. According to Andy Eninger, one of GayCo's founding members and current resident director, the bigoted graffiti was a wake-up call that there needed to be a support system for LGBTQ performers. In "most of the shows we'd seen on Second City stages . . . being gay was the punch line," Eninger says.
The group came up with the guideline "Gay is the given, not the punch line" and focused on representing the point of view of LGBTQ performers. Its 20th-anniversary showcase on Saturday, October 15, GayCo XX: Gay for Play, features sketches from the past two decades that speak to that mantra and highlight how far the gay community has come.
From the beginning, GayCo adopted Second City's process, using improvised scenes to inspire scripted sketches covering everything from personal themes, like coming out and dating, to larger issues in the community, like Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the AIDS crisis.
For some, like former ensemble member Jim Bennet, the sketch-comedy performances energized their real-life activism—while at GayCo, Bennet started working at civil rights nonprofit Lambda Legal as the midwest regional director. In 2013 he chaired the statewide coalition Illinois Unites for Marriage.
"GayCo really informed a lot of my strategy on how to reach hearts and minds," Bennet says. "In comedy, people's defenses are down—it's a way to reach people. It was great to be able to take my experience having to meet with the opposition or meeting with people who wanted to be able to adopt and find that comic sweet spot."
According to Bennet, the revue material usually strikes a balance between silly and poignant. For the upcoming performance, many of the sketches being revisited are no longer topical because the state of LGBTQ rights and politics has changed so much in the last 20 years. Instead, some old favorites will be restaged, including a dinner-party scene, a musical monologue about being a "late-in-life lesbian," and a bit that involves a giant puppet modeled after Eninger's aging cat, Queenie.
The environment is now very different for the new generation of GayCo. Issues surrounding LGBTQ rights have become a part of everyday politics. Openly gay performers are a constant on the Second City main stage or in other more conventional shows. This anniversary marks the end of an era for the company, according to Eninger. In many ways, he says, the group's original goal of representing gay voices onstage has been realized. But that doesn't mean the end of GayCo, just an evolved mission.
"There's an incredible energy from new people coming in who are looking for an outlet," Eninger says, "I think that GayCo has the ability to find that human truth deep in the lives of people who identify as 'other.'" v