How Improv Has Shaped This Second City Director's Career

This post originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s digital magazine.

Dionna Griffin-Irons leads diversity and inclusion at Second City.
Dionna Griffin-Irons leads diversity and inclusion at Second City.

Dionna Griffin-Irons

Location: Chicago, IL

Job: Director of Diversity and Inclusion, The Second City

Education: B.A. in TV, Radio, and Film, Wayne State University

Twitter: @dionnagirons

How did you get your start in the theater world?

There are two experiences in particular that helped launch my career: The first was a college internship at a nationally-syndicated TV show called Kelly and Company. I worked long hours in a congested space with seven powerhouse producers. Though I didn’t get paid, I learned a ton from my colleagues. The experience was invaluable.

The second was auditioning for Second City Detroit. After I graduated, I found myself back on campus searching theater call boards for work. A friend told me about a Second City audition, and, on a whim, I decided to give it a shot. I wasn’t looking for a job in comedy theater, nor did I consider myself funny. The audition was alongside 400 other actors. The director of the show led us into a room to play theater games and improvise with partners. I had never done anything so intense – and so fun – in my life. Taking a leap and trusting my instincts to discover something new landed me in the final group of 12, and eventually with a contract to perform with an ensemble. I learned early on that sometimes the best rewards come from not knowing and taking a big risk.

Tell us a bit about Second City and its history.

Second City is the world’s leading comedy theatre and school of improvisation. Our story began with Viola Spolin, a social worker who created improvised theater games for immigrant children in the ‘30 and ‘40s. Her creative system of theatre training crossed cultural and ethnic barriers. Her son Paul Sills (one of our founding members) taught the games to a group of friends at University of Chicago, who later became our country's first professional improvisational acting company. By 1959, The Second City was launched, and the rest is history! Today, we employ over 1,900 people in three cities (Chicago, Toronto, and Los Angeles) and offer a variety of classes, from comedy writing to directing. We're known for being a launching pad for many performers across a range of creative fields, from sketch comedy, to TV and film – and for training many many actors, comedians, and improvisers before they become stars. Some of our famous alumni include Tina Fey, Mike Meyers, Steven Colbert, Keegan Michael Key, and Steve Carrell.

What does leading diversity and inclusion at Second City entail?

Our mission, particularly as it relates to diversity and inclusion, is an ongoing commitment to exposing this art form to new voices. I create and manage programming and initiatives that foster greater access in talent acquisition, recruitment, and retention. We're working to diversify not only our stages, but also our audiences, partnerships, and presence in different communities. In a nutshell, I build bridges to sustain our growth and improvement as it relates to diversity and inclusion.

Where do you find your inspiration?

It's in my core being to create this type of access. Inclusion has never been about "work" for me. It's like a dining experience. You enjoy this great food, and you keep telling others about it so they can try it and invite more people along the way. I've always wanted to bring people to the table.

A lot of my inspiration also comes from listening to women who were serving time behind bars share their stories, fears, and joys – women who I thought were different and divided due to their race, belief systems, education, and socioeconomic status. I learned from an inmate named Jane early on that "we're all the same, only different."

What advice do you wish you could have given yourself on day one of your career?

Stay out of your head and be proactive. You have everything you need. Do not wait for permission from others to discover who you are. Be your biggest fan!

What are your tricks for staying productive?

I'm a writer and a serious notetaker. There's something highly effective and cathartic about getting ideas and goals out of your head and onto paper so that you can work creatively.

How have certain candidates stood out to you (in a good way) during the hiring process?

I adore candidates who do research about the company or institution they want to work for. It tells me that they are not waiting for someone else to fill in the blanks. If someone takes initiative early on, it’s a good sign they will continue to think ahead and apply those skills in the workplace.

What's something about you and your path that people might be surprised to learn?

Watch my 2015 TEDx Talk, and you'll learn that I use everything in life as fodder – including an unexpected adventure I had in a women's prison. Some of my best inclusion and outreach work started when I sat down to listen and create improvisation with a diverse group of women behind bars. I have no shame in being vulnerable on stage and sharing my darkest secrets, especially if it may help someone. Becoming an observer of our life and our choices is one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves.

Do you have any recommended reads?

I'm writing a memoir, and I tend to read while writing. Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, written in the 1930s, is a gem. I’d recommend every writer read as they write. Find a book that helps fuel your work!

What’s your memoir about?

It’s about the intersection of comedy, diversity, and women in prison – a personal story about facing the consequences of decisions I made at a young age, which led me to fall into the hands of a kingpin crook, picking up mail in an elaborate drug conspiracy, and ultimately serving time in jail. It's a revealing journey about channeling courage, self love, and a lot of improv to succeed.

The Well is the digital magazine of Jopwell, the career advancement platform for Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students. Subscribe to receive weekly stories and advice from The Well in your inbox.

The Second City is a Jopwell partner company.

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