Brian Posen interview: Sketchfest and future of Stage 773

     
     
Sketchfest Stage 773 banner Stage 773 renovations
     

 

Brian Posen discusses Sketchfest, Stage 773’s future

By Keith Ecker

Brian Posen thinks big. Just look at his brainchild, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival: In ten years time, the international sketch comedy festival has grown into the largest event of its kind in the world. In fact, this year’s is the biggest yet, boasting 129 groups and more than 800 artists. That’s a far cry from the 30-plus sketch groups the festival started off with.

But Posen’s visions of grandiosity extend beyond the world of sketch comedy. He’s a lover of all forms of performance art. Whether it’s drama, musical theater, dance, sketch, improv or stand-up, he wants to showcase it. And fortunately he has the power to do just that, thanks to his position as the artistic director of Stage 773 (formerly Lukaba Productions, formerly the Theatre Building). He’s currently planning a heavy-duty renovation of the building, splitting one of the three theaters into a cabaret space and a black box space. Ideally, the complex will become a sanctuary for all performance artists, featuring larger productions on the two main stages and smaller variety acts in the new spaces. It’s Posen’s hope this will create a "cross-pollination," with the end goal being to get theatergoers enthused to see comedy while convincing comedy nerds to see theatre.

I spoke with Posen the day before the launch of this year’s Sketchfest. We discussed the festival, cheap beer and the future of Stage 773.

             
Accidental Company - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Awkward Silence - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Just The Tip - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 The Team - Chicago Sketchfest 2011 Man-No-Show -  Chicago Sketchfest 2011

Above: Pictures of some of this year’s 129 sketch comedy groups.


Q: How did Sketchfest start?

Posen: It was in 2001. Sketch comedy had begun to flourish. A bunch of sketch groups started to emerge. I had been in this musical comedy group called The Cupid Players and had just finished directing [sketch group] Stir Friday Night. At the same time, I was given this theater space [the Theatre Building], and I wanted to do something with it. So I asked some sketch groups if they wanted to do a small run. We ended up having a little over 30 groups.

It went well, and I wanted to do it again. So I sent the Cupid Players around the country to other festivals, and we learned how to run our festival. So it was this fluke of an idea that I started to nurture. And by the third year, we had taken over the entire Theatre Building.

Q: How does managing the old Theatre Building, now Stage 773, affect the production of Sketchfest?

Posen: The Theatre Building was really good to us. They bent over backward for us. But now we have the freedom to do certain things that we couldn’t before. We can decorate the space anyway we want it. Before we would have to ask for permission to hang posters in parts of the lobby or had limitations on where we could post signage. Now we don’t have to worry about that. We also don’t have to use Ticketmaster, which means our audience doesn’t have to pay those surcharges. Also, the beer’s cheaper now.

Q: This year’s festival claims 129 sketch groups. How many did you have to turn away?

Posen: About 100 groups. I hate doing that. One thing I’m protective of is that all groups are treated equally. We don’t give awards; we don’t say someone is better than another. Our whole vibe is about building a community.

Q: How do you select what groups get into the festival?

Posen: I have an eight-person committee of performers, directors, producers, a tech designer and someone who is not in the profession. It’s really important to have that outsider. They all watch all the submission videos and rate them from 1 to 100. We have a spreadsheet and input all the numbers. But it’s not just based on that. We also look at the uniqueness of the groups. A couple years ago, there was a group we accepted that didn’t quite have the numbers, but they were all over 50. We rarely get a group that is in that age range. It was an awesome point of view to have here. So if there is something that can help the festival get even more diverse, we will consider that, too.

Q: You mention "points of view." How does that factor into sketch comedy?

Posen: With sketch, the artist who is performing the material is also the writer, so it’s all extremely personal to the artist. There are 129 groups this year, and each is coming from a very specific point of view. We have all Asian groups, all black groups, all lesbian groups. We also have kids groups, some with 11, 12 and 13 year olds. When I watch them, I think, "My God! What an awesome point of view. We as adults have to learn from this because they are blowing us out of the water."

Q: How would you describe the difference between a sketch and a one-act play?

Posen: To me, sketch is a mini one-act that is usually focused on satire. So we are making fun of something. There’s something we need to say to the world, and satire is how we do it.

Q: Since you’re so tuned into the comedy scene, have you noticed any emerging comedy trends?

Posen: The big thing that has changed is how easy it is to make video. People that make comedy have become a lot more technically savvy. As for the content of the comedy, there’s always these phases based on what’s going on in the world. And I think one of the biggest things I see right now is commentaries on just how dumbed down our society has become in the last 10 years.

Q: You’re planning on renovating the Stage 773 space this summer. What’s the impetus for doing this?

Posen: Smaller spaces are a big trend. We want to renovate one of the theaters to create a black box stage and a 70-plus-seat cabaret. These two spaces will be conducive to turnover every two hours. This way the space itself becomes a draw for the audience. So instead of going to the space to see a specific show, they are going to the space to see what shows are playing. We also hope to cross-pollinate the audiences. So the guy leaving the big stage can exit the theater and see the stand-up show in the adjacent space. It’s not easy to get more people to see theater, but we can encourage the people that do see theater to see more things.

Sketchfest Links:

See more Sketchfest Youtube videos HERE

           
           

Stage773 announces million-dollar renovations

$1-million facade and interior renovations

starting July 2011

Exterior rendering of Stage773 Renovations - John Morris Architects 2

 

Noted Theatre Architect John Morris to Head Renovation

Stage773 Artistic Director Brian Posen has unveiled plans for a massive renovation to the 33-year old and newly renamed Stage773 building (1225 W. Belmont). The $1 million renovation, helmed by Architect John Morris of Morris Architect Planners, transforms the exterior and interior of the building into a virtually new space that will be more accommodating for performers and audiences. The project will break ground July 2011 and promises to produce a state-of-the-art home for the numerous itinerant companies in Chicago as well as all of Stage773’s productions. 

Says Posen:

The renovation brings new life to a space that has such an important place in the history of Chicago theater. We know that our audiences are going to be wowed by this new airy and modern theater. The conversion of the West Theater into two new spaces will provide additional opportunities for itinerant companies, a boost in overall space usage and new funding sources for the building. We will continue to offer traditional theater and dance performances in the North and South Theaters, while hosting additional events, like improv, cabaret, stage readings and sketch comedy, in the two new spaces.“

Stage773 Renovations - John Morris Architects

The renovation plans, with renderings currently on display in the theater lobby (shown in the above picture), include:

  • Redesigning the Belmont Avenue façade;
  • Increasing the amount of lobby light and opening the lobby to street side viewing with the addition of floor to ceiling windows along Belmont Avenue;
  • Modernizing and doubling the number of lavatories;
  • Completely overhauling the South Theater, including relocating the stage and seating to allow for easier load-in, better sound proofing and convenient audience access.
  • Transforming the West Theater into two new flexible spaces: a cabaret and a blackbox.
  • Stage 773 Board Chair Laura Michaud expects the renovations to have a marked positive impact. “This will provide Chicago’s theater community with two new, state-of-the-art venues. The increase in performances and audiences that this renovation brings will also benefit businesses in our Lakeview neighborhood,” she said. Executive Director Megan Flanagan added, “For 33 years, this building has played a vital part in the history of Chicago Theater. Once the renovations are complete, Stage773 begins a new chapter in this history as a brand new building, inside and out. We will provide not only performance spaces but also a home that both audiences and artists will visit again and again for high-quality entertainment of all kinds.”

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    Black Ensemble Theater’s new $16-million arts facility

    Main Stage 2010-07-27 B

    On Friday, September 10th

    Black Ensemble Theater Breaks Ground on

     

    New $16-million Performance Arts Facility

    The 50,000 Square-Foot Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center expected to open in September 2011, will be Permanent Home in 34-Year History

    With its expanded and enhanced capabilities, the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center is designed to engage the community and encourage more holistic, positive critical thought about how African-Americans are seen and presented. The new facility will include amenities such as:

    • 300-seat main stage theater (double the capacity of the current venue)
    • 150-seat stage to serve niche audiences and smaller-scale productions
    • Classroom space that can be used by the community
    • Rehearsal hall and dance studio that will feature scene, costume and wardrobe rooms
    • Seven (7) dressing rooms
    • Work space for musicians
    • Expanded front lobby space with two concession areas
    • Indoor parking garage

    The Black Ensemble Theater will mark the groundbreaking of its new $16 million performance arts and cultural facility, the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, at 4440 N. Clark Street, Sept. 10,  at 2 p.m. The ceremony, which is open to the public, will feature performances from popular Black Ensemble productions and include remarks from founder and executive director Jackie Taylor. Invited guests include: Governor Pat Quinn, Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Alderman Eugene Schulter. Actor Harry Lennix will chair the ceremony.

     

    Scene from "My Brother's Keeper" Scene from "Nothing But The Blues"
    Scene from "Nothing But The Blues" Scene from "My Brother's Keeper"

    Chicago native Taylor founded the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976 with a mission to eradicate racism, merging her roles as actress and educator to build awareness and foster greater understanding of the African-American contribution to the cultural fabric of American history through theater. This charge is realized through outstanding, award-winning productions that attract highly diverse racial audiences as well as effective educational outreach programming that reaches more than 10,000 youth each year.

    This is an exciting time in our history, as a new building will help to facilitate the resurgence of the theater as an authentic space where a great people can exist and thrive with autonomy while tearing down barriers and building bridges through storytelling,” Jackie Taylor said.  “Our Board of Directors and capital campaign committee have been diligent in raising more than 80 percent of the funds needed to build the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center and we look forward to working with our patrons, community leaders and supporters to secure the $3 million needed to complete this important  project.”

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    Theatre Building Chicago changes name – now Stage 773

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    THEATRE BUILDING CHICAGO is now STAGE 773   

    Brian Posen, Artistic Director of STAGE 773 (formerly known as Lukaba Productions), has announced that the sale of the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, was completed at the end of May, and Stage 773 is now the primary tenant of the 3-theatre venue.

    “We are honored to be entrusted with the future of this building, which holds such an important place in the Chicago arts community,” said STAGE 773 board chair Laura Michaud.  “We look forward to continuing and building upon Theatre Building Chicago’s tradition of providing support as well as space for Chicago’s performing artists.” 

    The company formerly known as Lukaba Productions also officially announced it has changed its name to STAGE 773.  “The name STAGE 773 better expresses our company’s mission to celebrate the richness, creativity, innovation and spirit of Chicago’s off-loop theatre movement,” explained Brian Posen. 

    The company will remain under the creative direction of Posen, who also teaches at the Second City Training Center (Program Head) and Columbia College. Posen has an extensive career in Chicago theatre as an actor, director, teacher and producer.  He is also the creator of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, the world’s largest sketch comedy festival, which will be celebrating its 10th year in January 2011 at STAGE 773.


    About STAGE 773       

    STAGE 773 acts to embody the vibrant spirit of Chicago off-loop theatre by:

    • celebrating the creative process, supporting the work of actors, directors, writers, composers and designers;
    • nurturing the artist, offering material, technical, organizational and emotional support;
    • honoring the audience, presenting accessible, affordable, exceptional entertainment.

     

    Map picture

    Theater Wit opens smart performance space in Lakeview

    Architect Richard_Kasemsarn (photo by Dick Smith) Architect Richard Kasemsarn with the plan of Theater Wit. (Photo by Dick Smith.)

     

    Theater Wit: Chicago’s newest performance space opens

     

    By Leah A. Zeldes

    "It’s jaw-droppingly different," says Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, about his troupe’s new home.

    After 16 months of a $1.3-million joists-out renovation, the one-time post office adjoining Theatre Building Chicago is now the sparkling new Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map), a dynamic new multi-performance space. The building, most recently Bailiwick Arts Centre, still has a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross before the city of Chicago grants its Public Amusements Venue license. Wechsler expects it in mid- Theater Wit lobby (photo by Joel Wanek) May; for now, Wit is running its inaugural play, Spin (our review ★★★), on a "suggested donations" basis. Valet parking isn’t in place yet, either, but for the time being, Wit has arranged free parking in the lot behind Cooper’s restaurant across the street.

    The building now houses three 99-seat black-box theaters, providing a new showcase for intimate local productions.

    "This is a size of theater that didn’t exist," Wechsler says. "There were (too small) 70-seat theaters, in which you could never turn a profit on a show, and (too expensive) 150-seat theaters … in which you could never turn a profit on a show. I really wanted this size of theater for myself."

    Along with Wechsler’s Theater Wit company, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre and Stage Left Theatre will share the space as resident troupes, contributing work to the building and using about 75 percent of the performance time, with the remainder available for rental. In the fall, once all the theaters are up and running, Wit will introduce a flex-pass arrangement for tickets to all productions.

    Architect Richard Kasemsarn explains that the theaters are cleverly separated by dressing rooms to create easy backstage access and keep sound from bleeding from one to the other. They are also insulated from exterior noise, save for occasional seepage through the brick wall from the adjoining Theatre Building. New metal joists support a variety of lighting configurations.

    Theater Wit lobby (photo credit: Joel Wanek) One of the three theaters will feature flexible seating, not yet installed. Seats in the other two, salvaged from a Bolingbrook high-school auditorium, are surprisingly wide and comfortable, and they’re spaced with reasonable leg room, although their incline and offset don’t quite keep tall people from blocking your sight lines.

    Theater Wit exterior (photo credit: Joel Wanek) Architectural salvage provides handsomely quirky decorative elements through the space, although you won’t mistake this for a posh downtown theater. It does retain that hand-built, slightly rough quality common to Chicago storefronts. Kasemsarn, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute, recruited students to help with the finishing.

    The modest lobby features a bar, and the building has ample restrooms — a seven-stall ladies’ room should minimize lines at intermission. Oversized ductwork is intended to keep theater goers at comfortable temperatures without contributing noise.

    "I really want to control everything from the time you hit that lobby door," Wechsler says.

    Theater Wit architectural drawings (photo by Dick Smith)

    Broadway Playhouse set to open in September

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    Above: Artist rendering of reconfigured Broadway Playhouse

     

    Coming Soon:  “Traces”, “Working” and Sutton Foster

     

    by Scotty Zacher

    Get ready, Chicago, for Broadway in Chicago’s newest venue: the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.  Previously known as Drury Lane Water Tower, the space will join BIC’s current treasure-trove of venues: Cadillac Palace Theatre, Ford Center for the Performing Arts (aka Oriental Theatre) and Bank of America Theatre sutton-26(aka Shubert Theatre). BIC has signed a long-term agreement with General Growth Properties (owner/manager of Water Tower Place) that will allow for the renovation and management of the revitalized space.

    “This theatre will give Broadway in Chicago the ability to attract those productions that are better suited for a more intimate theatre. We hope to be able to expand the theatrical experiences we offer with this intimate and unique venue in the heart of the Magnificent Mile,” says James L. Nederlander (president, Nederlander Organization).

    Inaugural productions for the playhouse will include An Evening with Sutton Foster (music direction by Michael Rafter), Traces and a newly adapted version of Stud Terkel’s musical Working (fondly known as “the working-man’s Chorus Line”), in association Broadway-composer Stephen Schwartz.

    Though not announced at today’s press event, speculative capacity is set for 550 seats, a nice-sized theatre that will still allow for a more intimate experience when compared to the super-sized venues in Chicago’s theatre-district.

    In my view, there are two hurdles that the reincarnated space needs to tackle: the drawbacks of the location, as well countering the fact of high ticket-prices versus its less-than-opulent ambience.

    1. First of all, the location. Though there is a plus for being amidst the Magnificent Mile, there is also the fact that it’s actually more than a block walk from the main drag – and a rather cement-themed walk at that.  Though this might seem trivial, a non-pedestrian-friendly designation is detrimental to any business, be it a coffeehouse, flowershop or, yes, a large theatre.  Even though the product on stage is the main attraction for an audience member, another important aspect is pre-show/post-show experience.  And a nondescript marquee in a cement-canyon a full block away from Michigan Avenue does not a prospective customer make.  One suggestion to up-the-ante would be to build a flashy LCD banner, much like the State Street Channel 7 banner, directly on Michigan Avenue, just to the north of Water Tower Place (this technique has been effective for side-street Broadway houses).  This could be a win-win for the city as it would make Michigan Ave. more exciting (as attempted with the NBC ground-level studio) as well as give instant attention to the advertised show (I suspect, however, there might be blow-back from the Water Tower Place residents…)
    2. Drury Lane Water Tower many times expected their shows to have much longer runs than what actually occurred.  This can be partially attributed to the what I call the experience-gap: People are expecting an opulent feeling that they previously experienced at the Oriental and/or Cadillac Palace, but in fact get a more germane theatre that they might equate with many Captioned Photo - 6smaller cities.  Let’s face it, part of the draw of wildly-successful “Wicked” was not only the show, but the ooh-factor of the lobby and the painted ceilings and Asian-themed accents. You saw this on the faces of the adults and kids when entering the space, that then surely increased the probability of a strong word-of-mouth occurrence.  Obviously BIC can’t recreate the theatre to match a historic theatre-palace.  Instead, care can be taken in the actual production choices – productions need to have something special about them that supersedes the lacking inner ambience.  It looks like BIC has chosen just such productions, with high-def raucous shows like “Traces,” that take advantage of the intimate nature of the space to heighten the show’s energy (think “Blue Man Group”), as well as concerts that lend themselves to more intimate venues (i.e., “An Evening with Sutton Foster”). And fans will flock to see a reconceived version of rarely-produced Workingespecially being that it’s based on the book written by Chicago’s beloved Studs Terkel.

    In the end, I have the highest respect and expectations for Broadway in Chicago’s new venue endeavor.  Through their vision and hard work they have helped elevate Chicago as a theater draw for the entire Midwest, as well as a starting point for numerous Broadway-bound shows (e.g., Spamalot, Producers, Addams Family).   We at Chicago Theater Blog wish them the best of luck.

     M:\Projects910 Drury Lane Theater Renvoation1 Drawings3 Families\Lighting Fixtures\Broadway Playhouse-scyphers.pdf LOBBY

    M:\Projects\Drury Lane Theater Renvoation1 Drawings1 Central\WTP-Theater Scheme A Revised.pdfCONCOURSE (175 E. Chestnut)

    Theatre Building Chicago changes hands

    theatre-building-chicago

    LUKABA PRODUCTIONS FINDS A HOME

    Lukaba Productions announced today that it will be the primary tenant of the Theatre Building Chicago, at 1225 W. Belmont Ave.  Lukaba has committed to a long-term lease with 1225 West Belmont Avenue LLC, who this week signed a contract to purchase the building from Theatre Building Chicago.

    Under the contract announced this week, Theatre Building Chicago will sell its property in Lakeview, containing three 148-seat theaters, to 1225 West Belmont Avenue LLC, according to Charles H. Jesser, manager of record for the entity. Jesser also stated that the purchaser intends to make substantial upgrades to the building. (Yeah!) The transaction is expected to close in May.

    Lukaba executive producer Brian Posen stated, “We are excited about the opportunity to have our own space where we can collaborate with other artists and offer audiences accessible, affordable and exceptional entertainment.”

    sketchfest-logo Lukaba Productions, under Posen’s leadership, has a long history of theatrical production in Chicago.  Lukaba’s flagship product is the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, the world’s largest such festival that has taken place at TBC each January since 2002.  In addition, Lukaba is the parent company of the Cupid Players, the musical sketch comedy troupe that lays claim to the title of longest-running sketch revue in iO Theater’s history.  Posen has also produced a number of theatrical productions.  Those presented at TBC include the Chicago premiere of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Noises Off! and How the Other Half Loves.

    “We have spent the last several years searching for a permanent home that can serve as a base for our own productions, as well as helping us fulfill our mission of serving and nurturing Chicago’s theatrical artists.  We will continue TBC’s tradition of offering Chicago’s off-Loop companies affordable performance space so that the building will continue to serve as an incubator for Chicago theatre,” said Lukaba board chair Laura Michaud.

    See more updates on this story at Chris Jones’ blog.