The audience thrilled with excitement the night Niki Lindgren and her fellow Theatre IV cast members made the road trip to see Second City perform at its Chicago venue. The actors were touring the country, performing children's theater, but the side trip to Chicago would set Lindgren down a different performance path.
"It felt right to be there," Lindgren said. "It gave me a goal."
In January 2004, Niki Lindgren's years of work in the Chicago improvisational theater scene paid off with an invitation to join Second City's national touring company. The Second City is one of the main reasons Chicago has become improvisational theater's hub of activity. The theater offers sketch and improvisational comedy, feeding the city's scene through classes and performance and nurturing performers who go on to become some of the biggest names in comedy. Famous alumni include John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Mike Meyers, Billy Murray, Chris Farley and Tina Fey. The current show the company is touring with is Second City's 45th anniversary show, a mix of classic sketches and sketches written by the touring company. When venues request it, the company rounds out the performance with improv. The company will perform at the Barns at Wolf Trap on March 5.
"This is such a dream job for all of us," Lindgren said of her company.
LINDGREN STARTED her progression toward the stage at a young age, taking classes in ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance. At Robinson Secondary School, Lindgren, a member of the Class of 1994, joined the dance team, which ranked 10th nationally while she was a member. Her senior year, Lindgren was elected president of the student government and quit the dance team so she would have enough time for her responsibilities.
Lindgren then auditioned for the school musical, "South Pacific," and won the part of Bloody Mary.
When she left for James Madison University, Lindgren decided to become a theater major. This decision did not surprise her family.
"Niki was always on stage — a real live wire," said her father, Randy Lindgren. "She's always been a kind of life-of-the-party type."
Lindgren traces her brand of comedy back to her dance background. "I love the physical comedy, that's the thing I love the most. Silent scenes are always my favorite scenes to do."
Fellow cast member Brendan Dowling credits her traditional theater background with lending her versatility as a performer.
"She's so skilled at ... getting the audience on her side and allowing the audience to play into her hands," Dowling said.
At JMU, Lindgren gave improv a try, "but I was terrible at it," she said. After graduating with a degree in theater, Lindgren was hired by Theatre IV.
LINDGREN AND DOWLING have performed together since Lindgren joined the company last January.
After leaving Theatre IV in the winter of 1999, Lindgren went home and waited tables at Silverado in Annandale, saving money to move to Chicago. Lindgren and Dowling first met four years ago and have been friends for the past two.
Dowling said that Lindgren is especially deft at rallying the troops when they have nowhere to go after a show.
"Suddenly, Niki's convincing everyone it would be a great idea to play Truth or Dare in the hallway." He is close-lipped about further details. "What happens in Truth or Dare stays in Truth or Dare."
The group traveling to performances includes six actors, a stage manager and musical director.
"We would just continually prank each other," said Lindgren. She and a fellow cast member had a running prank-off. She waited in his closet for three hours while he was at a bar, just so she could jump out at him when he came home. To repay her, while she was out, this cast member took pictures of himself wearing her clothes, then sent the photos to her at a later date.
"We see the best and worst of each other, " said Lindgren. "I think they know me as well as anyone has."
"FIRST OF ALL, if you haven't met Niki, she is high-larious," said Matt Hovde, the touring company director. "She is super, super funny. You never quite know what she's going to do when she's on stage.
"She's doing crazy characters, and then she's moving you to tears within two minutes."
Once in Chicago, Lindgren studied improv with The Second City, ImprovOlympic and Annoyance Theatre. She worked at a restaurant and then as a temporary employee once performances began taking up her nights.
Lindgren caught Second City's eye while she was performing her one-woman show, "Photosynthesis of God and Man." The show explores characters through the ways they dance.
"She's fearless, to make strong and funny choices," said Hovde. Conquering the fear is one of the hardest things in improv, he explained. "You don't know what you're going to say, and everyone is watching."
"She's really inventive, she's really quick," said Dowling.
"She's been a really hard worker in this particular type of theater — improvisation, comedy," said Randy Lindgren. "She always looks for the comic side of life."
In Chicago, Lindgren performs with improv groups Baby Wants Candy, a musical ensemble; Bevy, an all-female ensemble; and James Jackson, which performs the Harold, a long-form improv style akin to creating a full play on the fly.
Lindgren also looks forward to getting back to working on her one-woman show. In the future, she would love to be a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" or take on a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary like the movies "Best in Show" or "Waiting for Guffman." However, with her touring schedule, her plate is currently full.
"I think keeping my mental sanity is the main thing right now," she said. "My main goal is just to be happy, and right now this is what it is."