Frontline and sidelines of comedy: Leela Bassuk

Originally honing her comedic talents at Second City summer camp, Leela Bassuk has been actively involved with the comedy scene in Iowa City. 


Michael Guhin

Leela Bassuk sits for a portrait in Thayer Theater on Monday, April 8, 2019.

Sarah Stortz, Arts Reporter

Whether she’s working in Iowa City, Chicago, or New York City, University of Iowa junior Leela Bassuk is a full-acting force.

Bassuk said she always creatively expressed herself, mainly through music as a child. When she was in middle school, Bassuk’s mother encouraged her to live in Chicago for a few weeks to enroll in the Second City’s summer comedy camps.

Since then, until graduating from high school, she returned to the camp every summer, doing improvisational theater in the morning and sketch comedy in the afternoon.

At the UI, she’s been casted in various shows, such as Rome Sweet Rome, Fun Home, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

This academic year, Bassuk has played roles in The Wolves and Iphigenia Point Blank: Story of the First Refugee.

She is also involved with the group Paperback Rhino, Iowa City’s longest standing improv-comedy group. The group has practices twice a week for two to three hours, and it has around two to six performances a month.

With most shows, Bassuk said, her fellow cast members feel like colleagues. For Paperback Rhino, her fellow members feel like family to her.

“There’s a lot of love and support on stage when I do improv, which helps because improv is so vulnerable, scary, and new,” she said. “It’s all about trusting the other people on stage and trusting that they’ll take care of you and you’ll take care of them.”

When she was younger, Bassuk said, she viewed improv as how fast and clever she could create a punchline. One important lesson she learned while being in improv is comedic moments can’t be forced, they must come from a truthful place, naturally spurred just by being present and reacting in the moment.

“I’m nowhere near doing that perfectly, but just that realization has been very eye-opening,” she said.

Aside from theater, Bassuk worked outside the stage by serving as the executive producer for this year’s Floodwater Comedy Festival. In this position, she was able to bring a few comedians she admired to town and expose them to a local audience.

“It was cool to be in that position because I did have some agency,” she said. “That felt really rewarding in a totally different way than acting is rewarding.”

Last summer, Bassuk interned in New York City, shadowing an Iowa alum who directs and produces comedy. Bassuk was able to sit down during rehearsals and observe the creative process for a working performance artist.

Bassuk additionally got involved in acting classes and audition while in New York, becoming an extra on the HBO show “The Deuce.”

“I came back feeling very inspired by all of these working artists in New York City,” she said. “It gave me a lot of energy and motivation to create my own work here. It’s such a hustle to be an artist, especially in a big city like New York. I feel very luck that I can even talk about it.”

Bassuk said she hopes to return to New York following graduation and live with her older sister.

“I just love creative process,” she said. “I don’t know what my career is going to look like — whether it’s acting, producing, or writing — but I just want to be creative.”