Do everything, because you’re going to need all of it.
I am declaring Carisa Barreca Second City’s sweetheart. One of the most beautiful, talented, kind and humble ladies I have ever met, Carisa has a heart of gold and nothing but good intentions. With a lifetime of performance background, she can do just about anything you throw at her. I was so lucky to be able to sit down with Carisa and discuss our admiration for our alma matter, Marquette University, love in improv and what it’s like to live out our dreams.
You’re from the Chicago area. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Arlington Heights and lived there most of my life. Juliet Lowe Holmes Junior High and St. Vitor High School.
Were you always involved in some type of theatre production growing up?
Yes. My aunt is a professional dancer, so when I was in preschool I saw her on stage and I decided I wanted to do that.
So was she kind of your initial inspiration? You sing, dance and act, so you had to get started somewhere.
I’m interested in all of them, I wouldn’t say I’m a “professional” in all. So yes, she was kind of my introduction into the performing arts. The first real show I saw was The Nutcracker and I wanted to put The Nutcracker up at my preschool and they actually did it. I wanted to be Clara and I guess I wouldn’t let it go so they had us all dress up and we put on the show.
How old are you in preschool, like three or four?
Yeah, I think so.
Hilarious. So if your aunt got you into the performing arts, was your family supportive of this career path?
They weren’t unsupportive. It was never something they thought of as a focus though. In high school the main focuses were math, history, science, etc.
Get the basics down first.
Exactly and if I was struggling in any of them, I was pulled from performing. I was really good at history and writing, but science and math were not my forte, so that was a bit of a struggle. But for the most part, when I got to perform, I was an all-around better person.
Ok, so it was kind of like a reward to be able to participate in performing. As if you were rewarded for completing your chores or something.
Of course, that makes sense. You’re happier and more rounded. Ok, so you’re a fellow Marquette alum and received dual Bachelor degrees in Communications and Theatre, minored in Dance and also got a Musical Theatre concentration. Well, you clearly had your plate full. In general, how was your time at Marquette?
I had to go through the Freshman Frontier program, which essentially meant giving up my last summer at home with my friends. That was not immediately something I wanted to do. But as soon as I got about a week in, it was great. Honestly, at one point I thought about transferring to Northwestern because they have such a great theatre program, but after a year at Marquette, I had no desire to leave. I fell in love with all of it.
There’s something about the people at Marquette. I know that sounds so cliché…
But it’s so true.
It really is. It’s a conversation I’ve had with so many alums and my friends as well. I fell in love with everyone I met.
I feel like there is something different at Marquette.
Right? Were there any improv troupes when you were at Marquette?
Yes, Studio 13 Refugees and they are still going.
Did you dabble in improv at that time?
Eventually. My freshman year I auditioned and I had no idea what it was. My friend was in it and told me to audition. But it was the worst audition. I auditioned with my boyfriend at the time and we came up with these bits and did rehearsed bits for an improv audition and obviously weren’t asked to join. I still think about that and my heart speeds up and my face gets red – it was so embarrassing. But we eventually just started playing with them because we were around so much. We did some short form shows at The Annex, but then we spun off and created our own little touring improv group. But it was just because I could get us weird gigs in Chicago. I’d book us shows at Links Hall above The Underground and we got paid!
Wow, that’s pretty good for being a senior in college.
I was good at making connections. So I made a connection through dance to do shows there. I was at a dance festival working on a project with Marquette, doing contact improv as a viable source for performance generation. Very similar to what we do at Second City, we’d improvise to create performance material. This woman I met said she heard I was a comedienne and asked if I wanted to bring my troupe to Chicago and do these shows once or twice a month. So I made a group and we did shows.
That’s perfect. I mean, that’s how that kind of stuff starts. Ok, real quick, a few questions about Milwaukee, because I love Milwaukee. Did you and your friends have a favorite campus bar?
Angelo’s. Do you know Angelo’s?
Yes, of course! But it shut down like a year or so ago and got replaced by Sobleman’s, which is the best thing that could have replaced it, but still.
Heartbreak. I mean, it wasn’t the best bar…
No, it was terrible.
Haha, it was, but we loved it. Oh, our favorite bar was “Why Not Two’s.”
What’s that? It sounds like a wine bar.
It’s not a wine bar and it wasn’t on campus. It’s a great little spot, over by the Comedy Café on Brady or Prospect…
Interesting. I’ve never heard of that.
No one should. We went there a lot, but as far as campus bars go, we went to Angelo’s and Haggerty’s a lot.
Ahhh, yes. They shut that down a while ago too. Also a dive bar, but great.
Yeah, I think we only drank at dive bars.
Ok, so we all love Marquette. Do you have any one specific Marquette memory that sticks out?
Oh goodness. There’s so many. Oh, there was this 6-month long program or something and Father George Durrance directed this show called “Life Is A Dream.” It was huge. The set had a moat and we had puppets and masks and music, but the best part was that we all got to go to New York to perform it.
While you were a student at Marquette?
Yeah. I think it was at St. James Cathedral in New York. We stayed in a convent to help keep costs down, but it was so great. It was a really amazing experience that they sought out for us. It was such a beautiful gift.
Incredible! Ok, so you graduated Marquette and then what?
I actually performed in Milwaukee for about a while after graduation. I got a role in “Chicago” with the Skylight Opera Theatre.
What role did you play?
I played “Go-to-hell Kitty” and I understudied all of the other parts. While I was doing that, I was driving back and forth from Chicago to take the Comedy Studies program at Second City. I auditioned for The Second City Conservatory and got in, so that brought me back to Chicago.
Was there a certain point where the scale tipped more towards comedy for you?
Going further back in my life, I always wanted to work at Second City. We would come back and see a show every year and that’s the first thing I told the people at Marquette and they told me to at least train there. So I’ve always wanted to do this. But I also had a love of so many other things and I was certain that I could find a way to pull them all together.
So how long after you graduated did you move down to Chicago?
About a year after I graduated.
Aside from studying in the Conservatory program, what else were you doing?
I got a job at Second City. I would host and sell merchandise most nights so I could watch all the shows. I’d take classes on Tuesdays, work nights at Second City Wednesday-Saturday and during the day I opened a gym and I was the receptionist. That was my job. I got there at like 6am, worked until about 3pm, came home, took a nap and then came to Second City and worked from about 5pm to midnight. Then I’d go home and do it again the next day.
How long did you keep that up for?
Way longer than a human should, about two years. Then I decided I had to quit the gym and I got another job as an assistant to a real estate manager and that job took up more time, so I had to also quit working the night shift at Second City.
Ok, so by that time you had finished the Conservatory program, so what were your next steps?
I auditioned for Cupid Players and did that for a while and a lot of little shows.
That’s the beauty of Chicago, it’s just such an incredibly supportive environment and there are so many opportunities.
You can do shows every night if you want to. You aren’t going to get paid, but you can do them. It’s definitely another part of your education.
Absolutely, it’s necessary. I think it’s just finding that balance, figuring how to pay rent and find time to be one stage.
Exactly. Then I also decided I didn’t want to just meet like once a week for rehearsal, it just didn’t seem as serious as I wanted to be. Growing up in theatre, you rehearse almost every day of the week. So I started another group based on the idea of a sketch comedy group with a theatre schedule and that was called “New Batch of Jeans,” which ran for about three years. So fast-forward a few years, I got an invitation to audition for The Second City boats. After I auditioned, Beth Kligerman (Director of Talent at The Second City) came to see a show I was in called “Off-Broadway,” which was like a burlesque-style comedy. (No clothes were taken off, but it was a burlesque-style satire.) Beth saw that and I think that’s what tipped the scale and I got my first boat. I quit my job and I spent two contracts on boats and then I got back and things just started rolling.
So you’ve been in a number of shows including “What The Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You,” “The Second City’s Guide to The Opera” and now you’re on e.t.c. So far, what has been the most rewarding experience in your time with Second City thus far?
Honestly, I never thought I’d be on a stage here because there’s so much talent in this building. I almost resigned myself to just being proud to be a part of this building. So the day I got asked to be on e.t.c was the best thing. Being a part of the process and creating a show together, that has been the best and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
So what is this life like, being a part of e.t.c? Is it everything you always dreamed it would be?
It’s incredible. I mean, some days you do get tired, because it’s a grueling schedule, but I’ve always made a vow to myself that I won’t complain. There are so many people that want this, so to complain just feels like a betrayal to those people. Every night, when we take a bow, I remind myself, “You’re lucky and you’re living your dream.” Sometimes we need those reminders, because I am, I’m so lucky and I’m living my dream.
A former boss once imparted a rather harsh piece of truth unto me. He said, “Remember, you’re always replaceable.” That was hard to grasp for a while, but he was right and that’s something I’ve always kept in the back of my mind. Especially when you get lucky enough to not only understand what it is that you want but then to attain it, the idea of being replaceable is no longer an option. So yes, reminding yourself how lucky you are is a good practice to get into.
So e.t.c. has been getting a few celebrity guests recently. Is there anyone in particular that you have been beyond excited to meet and play with?
Well, Mumford and Sons was out of this world amazing. I love them as a band, but then to get to meet, hang out and play with them…stupid fun.
Were you geeking out or did you try to keep it cool?
I don’t have that thing in me that can be cool. I’m the least cool person. By the end of the night, I think I wasn’t too bad, but they were also geeking out about us, which was crazy!
Mumford is great. That’s our plug for Mumford. Ok, you were also just named Chicago Reader’s Best Choreographer for 2013, so congratulations on that! What would you say is your proudest moment or what you think might have earned you that title?
Oh my goodness, you know what, I have no idea. I’m so honored. Gail Adduci (from Marquette) and I started Matter Dance Company about three years after graduation because we wanted to enter a festival that didn’t allow people who weren’t part of a dance company, so we made up a dance company.
I love that you’re life seems to be following the trend of wanting somethingand then just creating the opportunity for yourself. You figure out what you want to do and then you figure out a way to make those things happen.
Well, thanks, it’s wonderful. So we did that and the company was also voted the Best Dance Company for the last six years as well. I think that’s probably where it came from. But our dance company ties in comedy and dance, so that’s kind of how I tied those two things together.
How many people are part of the company?
There are about 20 guys and gals. We’ve actually been getting a lot of gigs lately because we’ve been able to combine improv and dance pretty well. We also do short-form games as dances and the audience gets involved, it’s very fun.
We’ve had a lot of improv groups reach out to us, which is great. Everyone in our company is required to know the improv-based dance that we do and they are all required to have an improv background.
That’s so exciting and it makes so much sense. So basically, improv makes everything better. Speaking of improv making things better, you happen to also be dating an improviser.
Yes, I am.
And Kevin [Sciretta] is also a performer with Second City and is well-known around Chicago. I’m a hopeless romantic, so I have to ask how you two met.
We met in Cupid Players, which is appropriate. We met there and we were both dating someone else, but we broke up around the same time and then about a year later, we started dating.
So how long have you known each other?
About eight or nine years and we’ve been together for seven.
Seven years! That’s the cutest. You’re both very busy right now, but in the past you’ve performed together as “Baretta.” What’s performing together like?
It’s so fun. I love it. We’re actually working on a new show right now. He didn’t want to do it for so long because he was afraid we’d fight while we were doing it. I understand that, but I don’t fight, so it worked. Our shows are just fun and goofy. It’s like every bit you’ve every done in your apartment or in a car or on your way somewhere becomes a thing.
What is it like when you have “work” to do together versus just wanting to spend time together?
I work really well on deadlines, so that’s how we work. So if we set deadlines, we can get stuff done. We never do work on “date days” and we have to plan those ahead of time because we both have such weird schedules. We have a Google Calendar with our schedules on it. I think a Google Calendar has saved our relationship.
Haha, plug for Google!
Send me things!
In general, what is it like dating someone in the same industry as you, especially one that ebbs and flows with little consistency?
There are definitely money issues, because I mean, you just never know. But I think money issues are a relatively common issue in all relationships. Other than that, I don’t think anyone else would understand this life. So it works really well.
Backtracking just a bit. You went through the Conservatory program at Second City, were there any other training programs you went through in Chicago?
I went through Annoyance, but I didn’t finish and I didn’t do iO. Shhh, don’t tell Charna! I hear it’s great, but I just got busy and didn’t get a chance to do it. Hopefully I’ll get to go through it someday though. One of my favorite classes was with the Neo-Futurists though.
Really? How was that?
It was great, I’m actually taking another one. It’s an 8-week program and they kind of teach you how to do their style, which is very realistic and artistic but it really helped me to find new ways to perform. It exposes you to a lot of new elements you can incorporate into your performance.
I didn’t realize they had classes as well.
Yes, you should go take them.
Well, thank you for that. Alrighty, moving on. Who are some of your greatest comedic and personal inspirations?
When I was a kid, Lucille Ball was my favorite. I would watch those episodes on repeat. Obviously, Tina Fey. I mean, you have to say her, right? Otherwise I think someone comes and gets you.
That sounds about right.
Right? Um, Amy Poehler. I first saw her on The Upright Citizens Brigade TV show and I loved that show. Personally, the people who inspire me the most are in The Second City building now. Katie Rich is a powerhouse. Holly Laurent, what an amazing mind she has. The characters she comes up with are so precise and lovely. Brooke Breit is one of my closest friends on the e.t.c. stage (we’re all friends, by the way), but she is just a machine for creation. All three of those women have such different styles of performance and creation but they’re all such inspirations to watch. Beyond people on TV, I try to look for people in my real life, so I can be more attached to them personally and professionally.
Absolutely. The e.t.c and Mainstage shows right now are so phenomenal and beautiful. Each of the women in both casts are so strong and so different and all equally brilliant. There are almost no words. It’s like magic.
It’s true. It’s so fun to perform with them. Punam is such a little ball of character. I just want to hug her all the time. Katie Rich, she’s lovely. Tawny, have you heard her music? She is so talented. Not just her voice, but creating music. You have to check out her EP, it will blow you away.
Yes, the talent on these stages is unreal.
It’s crazy. Ok, to start tying it back up, if you could go back and impart words of wisdom to your younger self, what would you tell yourself?
Oooo, great question. Don’t get a perm. That was a dumb idea. But on a more professional level, do everything and get good at everything, you don’t have to pick just one thing. Just have your fingers on every pulse. Do everything, because you’re going to need all of it.
Absolutely. Do you have a life motto that you go by?
Be nice. You never know who you’re talking to. I always try to be good to people and I know that sounds cliché, but no one deserves an attitude, no matter what kind of day you’re having or who you think you are. Everybody is somebody, just be nice.
That’s so nice to hear, because unfortunately, not everyone feels that way. Where do you hope to see yourself in five years? You’re in a wonderful place right now, but as the lady who makes opportunities for herself, in your dream world, where would you be in five years?
I mean, in a dream world, I’d love to be on a sitcom.
Oh, you’d be brilliant on a sitcom. Please don’t ever do reality TV. Don’t contribute to that. It’s a terrible epidemic that won’t stop.
Never. I promise you.
Can we pinky swear that you’ll never do reality TV?
Yes, I pinky swear I won’t do reality TV. [We pinky swore.] I’d also love to do another musical at one point. As long as I am working as a comedienne/performer, that is my goal.
Ok, here’s the biggest question I have for you: what is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
That’s so important. Sometimes I think I’m not contributing to the world as much as I should be, you know?
Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
People are saving lives and doing big important things for the world and making it a better place. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that maybe I’m not great at those things. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is bring that hour or two of joy to people and if I can do that, I feel like I’ve done something good. I think that’s important for the world. There’s stress and money issues and fights and crappy jobs but to allow someone to come into our show and let that all go for two hours where they don’t have to think about any of that and they can just laugh. If I can do that, then I’m happy. I think that’s the ultimate goal of comedy in relation to the world.
I agree with everything you just said, so if we had to summarize that…
Comedy brings laughter and laughter enlightens life. It’s like a circle of laughter and life. I kind of feel that without joy there is no point in life, so there you go.
There you go. Well thank you very much lady. Do you have any final comments?
How about a few shout outs? Everyone on both Second City stages, they all deserve so much love because they’re all so talented. Kevin, he’s super talented. He’s one of the most impressive improvisers I’ve ever seen and he’s so smart and uses all of it. I just can’t. He’s great. Marquette – high five, excellent job. Um, who else? Everyone. Everyone in the world – you’re doing great.
Carisa Barreca has previously performed with the Cupid Players, The Second City’s Norwegian Cruise Lines, What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You, and at Lyric Opera with Patrick Stewart and Renee Fleming in The Second City’s Guide to the Opera. She is now a resident actor on The Second City’s e.t.c. Stage and a founding member of Matter Dance Company and was voted “Best Choreographer” (Chicago Reader).
Interview conducted on August 25, 2013.