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

           
           

Theatre Building Chicago changes name – now Stage 773

stage-773-logo

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.

 

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Steppenwolf taps Rebecca Rugg for new Associate Producer post

Yale School of Drama  instructor Rebecca Rugg will join the Steppenwolf  Theatre  Company  in the newly-created position of Associate Producer. The post involves  “work(ing)”  closely with the Director of Artistic Development to implement new initiatives, provide dramaturgical expertise and continue to deepen Steppenwolf’s commitment to the development of new plays,” according to a written statement from the theater.

 Rugg has strong local ties in addition to a background that spans continents.  This season in Chicago, in addition to being an Artistic Associate at About Face Theatre  Company, she was the dramaturg on 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal with the 500 Clown ensemble and for the world premiere of  Fake written and directed by Eric Simonson for the Steppenwolf Downstairs theater. 

Rugg comes to the position with  a strong background in dramturgy, most recently working as in instructor in the Department of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama. She also served as dramaturg and director of new projects at the Joseph Papp Public Theater / New York Shakespeare Festival under George C. Wolfe.  She was dramaturg on the original productions of Caroline, or Change, Harlem Song, Radiant BabyElaine Stritch at Liberty and together with Joe’s Pub Director Bill Bragin, commissioned Passing Strange

 In addition to her dramaturgy skills, Rugg has substantial producing credits, having produced  the  University network of the 365 Festival – a festival based on 365 Days/365 Plays, a year-long play cycle written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.  Working  with Parks and Bonnie Metzgar (now the Artistic Director of About Face Theatre) , Rugg helped bring the 365 Days/365 Plays cycle to hundreds of theaters, universities and art spaces throughout the U.S. and abroad. The labor-intensive project drew kudos from Time Magazine, which named the 365 Festival one of its top ten theater events in 2006. 

Rugg’s criticism and translations have been published in American Theater, Theater Magazine and Performing Arts Journal. She holds a BFA and an MFA from Yale School of Drama, an MA from University of California, Riverside and a BA from Cornell University.  She has been a Jacob Javits Fellow, Djerassi Resident Artist, Fellow at U.C. Riverside’s Center for Ideas and Society and a member of the Foundry, Ma-Yi and Hip Hop Theater Festival’s delegation to the 2007 World Social Forum.

Elton John and Partner are Broadway producers again

Elton John and partner David Furnish are the newest producers of the play Next Fall, with the Off-Broadway production making its opening on Broadway in the Helen Hayes Theatre on March 11th.  Next Fall deals with gay relationships, and all of the ups and downs occurring along the way.

COUPLES DAVID FURNISH ELTON JOHN X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Receiving good reviews during an engagement off-Broadway in 2009, the play has a distinct disadvantage in that it has no star actor, director or playwright to help draw audience members.  The industry is hoping that the star power of Elton John will make up for this.

This is the couple’s first foray into non-musical production – they have previously collaborated on Broadway for Billy Elliot: The Musical. John was Tony-nominated for best original score and Furnish served as executive producer.

Addams Family set to go through Revisions

“Revisions” for ‘Addams Family’ before Broadway run

The Addams Family
Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre

As the musical begins, there are storm clouds gathering over the Addams Family home. Wednesday is falling in love, and guess who's coming to dinner?

Synopsis:
In this original story, the famously macabre Addams Family is put to the test when outsiders come to dinner, hurling Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Fester, Grandmama and Lurch headlong into a night that will change the family forever.
Show Advisory:
None
Genre:
Musical
Cast List:
Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello, Kevin Chamberlin, Jackie Hoffman, Zachary James, Adam Riegler, Wesley Taylor, and Krysta Rodriguez
Production Credits:
Direction and design by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch
Lighting design by Natasha Katz
Sound design by Acme Sound Partners
Puppetry by Basil Twist
Music direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrations by Larry Hochman
Dance arrangements by August Eriksmoen
Hair design by Tom Watson

Special effects design by Greg Meeh
Fight direction by Rick Sordelet
Heidi Miami Marshall will serve as associate director

Other Credits:
Lyrics by: Andrew Lippa
Music by: Andrew Lippa
Book by: Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice The producers of Addams Family, set for a spring Broadway opening, have hired the Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks as a consultant for the $16.5 million production, attempting to revive the musical from its less-than-glowing reviews.

perhaps we were taking a little too much for granted assuming that the audience walks in with the relationship with the Addams family fully intact, and we didn’t appropriately reconnect the audience to the family members,” said producer Stuart Oken.

No one on the creative team has left the show or been fired, Mr. Oken said, with Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch still listed as the directors and production designers, and Mr. Zaks billed as creative consultant.

Mr. Zaks is close to Mr. Lane, having directed him in the long-running Broadway musical revivals of Guys and Dolls in 1992 and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1996, for which Mr. Lane won the Tony Award for best actor in a musical.

The musical’s lead producers, Stuart Oken and Roy Furman have admitted that the plot needed to focus more tightly on the Addams family members and that all roles, starting with Gomez (Nathan Lane) and Morticia (Bebe Neuwirth), needed their eccentric and subversive personalities clearly established in dialogue and song before the main action of the plot begins.

 

Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane 1

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Spider-Man the Musical – a sticky web of financial woes

A web of financial woes

He can shoot webs, swing between buildings, and punch through brick walls, but Spider-Man’s fundraising powers are another story. Six years, tens of millions of dollars, and music by U2 have yet to bring the superhero to Broadway, where a planned musical is still short as much as $24 million of its projected $52 million budget. According to the Los Angeles Times, the production would easily be the most expensive in history and would feature pyrotechnics, giant sets, and a Spider-Man who swings directly over the audience. "The visuals and the music are amazing, and that’s what will matter," Bono told the Times.