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

           
           

Theater Thursday: Lady’s Not For Burning (Theo Ubique)

Thursday, October 30th

The Lady’s Not For Burning  

 

Written by Christopher Fry
Directed by Fred Anzevino
Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre
at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)

ladyburningA romantic comedy written in verse by Christopher Fry. Set in the Middle Ages, it reflects the world’s exhaustion and despair following World War II. The Story is about a disillusioned veteran who wants to be hanged unitil he is wooed by the happier accused witch on her way to the stake. Special guest, Neil Tobin, a well known Chicago mentalist and expert in supernatural history will appear with Fred Anzevino, director and Theo Ubique’s artistic director in a post-show discussion.  A complementary dessert and coffee will be served to Theatre Thursday guests at intermission and a $5 discount is offered.

Show begins at 7:30 p.m.

Event begins immediately following the performance.  

Tickets: $20

For reservations visit www.theoubique.org 

and use discount code "TheatreThursday."


 

Additional offers for The Lady’s Not For Burning

 

Weekend Special: 2-for-1 tickets for Friday, Sunday shows

 

Buy 2 tickets for the price of one for the Friday and Sunday performances this weekend (October 1 and 3) through the ticket service at 800-595-4849 or through their website: www.theoubique.org.

A limited number of discount tickets also will be offered through Hot Tix for the duration of the run of The Lady’s Not for Burning, closing October 31 with a special Halloween Party performance package.

  
  

Essay-Review: Billy Elliot – A teaching moment?

Miners Association

Billy Elliot: A teaching moment?

 

 

J.P. Viernes as Billyby Paige Listerud

There shouldn’t be any trouble with the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning show Billy Elliot, but there is. Simply put, the music – composed by Elton John – is gorgeous, the songs, memorable. The dialogue is, by turns, funny and frank—at appropriate moments brutally unsentimental and at others deeply touching. Under Stephen Daldry’s cunning direction, Billy Elliot successfully veers from hardcore expressionism to utter escapist fantasy. It’s a heartwarming tale about a child achieving his dreams against horrendous odds. All the same, while stuffed to the gills with sterling inter-generational talent, this multilayered production just isn’t putting bums in the seats at the Oriental Theatre the way Wicked did. Broadway in Chicago invited us to its “bloggers’ bash” last Thursday, no doubt to generate a fresh injection of press. Yet, shockingly, little more than half the theater was filled on a Thursday night.

So just what is the trouble with Billy?

  • Its rough language turns off too many parents. Hard to believe that this could be a concern in an urban setting, but this is the Midwest. Marketing Billy Elliot as a family show because of its plethora of child talent may have crashed on the reefs of American conservatism over language. Certainly the movie version, when it came to the US, received an R rating for adult language, which later transformed to a PG-13 rating upon DVD release. Much as I might wish that both parents and children could appreciate the touch of realism that Lee Hall has scripted for his Northern industrial English town, my sentiments may be completely overridden by parents not wanting one more cultural inducement for their kids to engage in verbal shock and awe.
  • It’s the economy stupid. Say what you want about uplifting messages about a talented dancing boy achieving his dreams, Billy Elliot is dark. Billy (J.P. Viernes for our performance) makes it to the Royal Ballet in London, but his small town community is going down. It’s 1984 and Margaret Thatcher is shutting down the UK’s national coal mining industry in favor of cheap coal from the Eastern bloc states. 300,000 jobs are all going bye-bye–forever. Try wringing a positive message out of that scenario as America double dips into the Great Recession (Great Depression for people of color) and the Democrats lose the gains they made in Congress two years ago.

So it’s not just the dirty words—Billy Elliot is crashing on the reefs of America’s economic and political turmoil. Would that the show itself could be a teaching moment about the value of survival in hard times. The trouble is that the only person surviving decently is Billy . . . and he survives because he is exceptionally talented, because his talent holds youthful promise, and because his future career is in the arts, not coal mining. The UK still subsidizes the arts far more than the US—but even that funding is facing a 25% cut under the current government.

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and CastWhat may be an even more important point, emotionally and dramatically speaking, is that Billy is a lonely survivor. The production creates an infinitely potent moment of loss and isolation with the number “Once We Were Kings.” The miners, defeated after their struggle with the Thatcher government, descend into the darkness of the mining pit with only the lights on their helmets showing. Billy watches them depart—his own shadow cast long, black and solitary behind him. One way of life is ending while Billy’s is just beginning. Melancholy infuses Billy’s singular success at the Royal  Ballet. Billy makes his escape to London—but he cannot take the rest of his family or community with him.

Sadly, this just may be more realism than American audiences are ready to pay for in our country’s present situation. Ironically, Billy Elliot is just as much about human beings resorting to fantasy as a way to cope with hard times. This production contains incredible moments of fun and beautiful fantasy. Billy’s dance number with his young friend Michael (Dillon Stevens), complete with a cadre of 20-foot tap-dancing dress, is a flight into reverie over the joy of women’s clothing for the young cross-dresser. Other fantasy moments expand into profound theatrical expressions.

J.P. Viernes and Samuel PergandeOne of the deep pleasures of this production, over and above the movie version, is that we do not actually witness Billy as an adult ballet star. Future success is only hinted at during Billy’s dance with his older self (Samuel Pergande) to the music of Swan Lake. Peter Darling’s choreography and Rick Fisher’s lighting design evoke a scene that recalls William Wordsworth’s “The Child is Father of the Man.” The audience is moved to hope and dream with Billy because it can glimpse the fulfillment of his human potential through Viernes and Pergande’s grace and control.

Darling’s choreography even makes profound social statements about the nature of children’s lives under violent labor-busting conditions. The dance number “Solidarity” is by far the high point of the show. Darling intricately weaves together the feminine setting of Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance class with the outer masculine sparring between miners and police. Billy may tussle with the girls to keep up with Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance orders, but the children seem protected and separate from the struggle that is determining the course of their lives. Darling’s choreography stunningly reveals just how illusory separation is. It brings together the two disparate worlds of Billy’s universe and the lyrics of the song even comment on the blue-collar connections between the police and the striking miners. That’s a lot to achieve in one number and the cast pulls it off fantastically.

In fact, let’s just say here that every dance number is fantastic. Only the first act finale, “Angry Dance” pales, seeming rather anti-climactic, compared to the rest. Billy’s secret ballet lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) have been exposed. Billy’s Dad (Armand Schulz) has just forbidden both them and his chance to audition at the Royal Ballet in London. So far as Billy’s family and the other miners are concerned, ballet is for “poofs.” Billy’s angry dance afterwards meshes with the violence erupting in town, since the police have just violently attacked Billy’s brother Tony (Patrick Mulvey – see picture below the fold).

Tommy Batchelor and Police Shields But once again, the choreography positions Billy as a lonely warrior against forces beyond his control. He alone faces a line of riot police with their ominous shields. Even as symbolism, the image is heavy-handed. Surely the rage and bloodshed that the whole community faces is worth some representation on stage. Having set Billy up as the boy who is “different” from the rest—because of his love for dance–he cannot at this point stand in for the whole community. As much as Fisher’s stark, expressionist lighting packs a powerful punch, the act of isolating Billy as if he were the only one suffering diminishes the powerful communal statement of the entire production and does not cleanly communicate Billy’s rage.

  • Billy is different from other boys. Billy is tacitly queer. Could the social conservatism of Billy’s mining town, circa 1984, have its mirror reflection in the urban and suburban environs of 2010 Chicago? That’s difficult to say. So long as documentaries like Straight-laced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up reveal kids being harassed and bullied just for wearing scarves or pastel colors; so long as youngsters commit suicide because of anti-gay harassment at school – messages that promote tolerance regarding sexual identity and gender expression will always be needed in America.

A message of acceptance and tolerance, of appreciating differences, not denying, hiding or shunning them—this is the core message of Billy Elliot. One wonders whether this message, too, has been overwhelmed by our current economic troubles. Billy needs to escape the economic reality that his family and community confront. But the cost to him seems to be any close association with family and community. Few moments inspire more than when, not only Billy’s family realizes that he has to have his chance, but the entire community of rough and rugged miners offer up what little money they have left to get him to his audition in London. At that moment, Billy’s queerness seems to make no difference and their funding of his aspirations becomes their last, noble expression of “Solidarity Forever.”

Billy makes it out because of his exceptional talent. Heaven help the poor queer kid in a rough mining town who is simply average. At the end of the show, Billy gives his queer buddy, Michael, a goodbye peck on the cheek. Heaven help Michael because his community’s homophobia is not over and done with, whatever they have done for Billy. Michael still has to grow into queer adulthood. On top of that, he now has to grow up with extreme economic disadvantages to himself, his family, and his community—something that won’t make the homophobia go away. One of the terrifying things about economic crises is that people often go looking for an Other to scapegoat—whether that Other is queer, immigrant, or a member of a minority.

Is Billy Elliot’s message of acceptance, then, too narrow for our times? What one has with Billy’s acceptance by his family, the endorsement of his community, and with Billy and Michael’s own personal self-acceptance, is a brief respite from the punishing restrictions of sexuality and gender prejudice. It hardly seems enough in the face of government-sponsored economic terrorism–but they have to make do with what they have. And so do we.

Right now, that may not be enough for the American public, at least in terms of entertainment. Billy Elliot is such a big, rich and complex musical treat but it cannot do it all. One can only hope that this superb production has what it takes to survive the current climate.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Billy Elliot is currently playing at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre through January 15. Individual tickets range in price from $30 to $100, and can be bought at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph, 151 W. Randolph and 18 W. Monroe), the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations (including Hot Tix), and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com. For groups of 15 or more, call 312-977-1710.  For more information, visit www.BillyElliotChicago.com.

Corrales, Skinner, Hammond and Ballet Girls

 

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Cirque Shanghai and Navy Pier create all-day fun package

Show + Ferris Wheel + Boat Tour + 20% Off Food = $35.75!!

 

cirqueshanghaicloudnine010

Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9 (our review here ★★★½) has joined several other Navy Pier favorites to offer patrons the Navy Pier All-Day Fun Package.  The package includes exclusive Gold Circle seating to Cirque Shanghai, vouchers for the Ferris Wheel, the Shoreline Sightseeing Skyline Lake Tour and a coupon for 20% off food purchase at RIVA Restaurant.  This value package cannot be beat at $35.75 for an entire day of entertainment at Navy Pier.  The Navy Pier All-Day Fun Package can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com/shanghai

Under the creative direction of Sylvia Hase, directed by Miao Miao Chen and with choreography by Brenda Didier, Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9 is presented in this exclusive US engagement by Navy Pier in conjunction with International Special Attractions production headquarters in Shanghai, China.

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE AND TICKET INFORMATION

  • Wednesdays at 2pm, 6pm and 8pm
  • Thursdays/Fridays at 2pm and 8pm
  • Saturdays at 2pm, 6pm and 8pm
  • Sundays at 2pm and 4pm

cirqueshanghaicloudnine001 There will be additional performances Thursday, Aug. 26 and Friday, Aug. 27 at 6pm in conjunction with the Pepsi Tall Ships Chicago 2010 celebration at Navy Pier, as well as Monday, Sept. 6 (Labor Day) at 2pm and 4pm.

Tickets are available by calling 800-745-3000 or visiting ticketmaster.com/shanghai. Discounted tickets for groups of 10 or more are available by calling GroupTix at 877.4GRP.TIX (877.447.7849) or visiting www.grouptix.net.

Notes: This package is not available for Wednesday and Saturday 8 p.m. performances of “Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9.”

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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.

Free ticket offer for New World Rep’s “Phedra”

Theatre Building Chicago is offering complimentary tickets for closing performance of Phedra, presented by New World Repertory. Call the TBC Box Office at 773-327-5252 – use the Code Word ALLISON. Curtain for the February 14th performance is at 3:00 PM

Phèdra by Jean Racine

Based on ancient myths, the tragedy examines how love and unabated passions can destroy us all. Phèdra is cursed by the gods to love her step-son, Hippolytus, who hides a secret love affair of his own. Emotional, turbulent and sexy, “Phèdra” is a mythical soap opera for the contemporary audience.

Goodman to give Chicagoland servicemen free tickets for final performance of “Christmas Carol”

Chicagoland servicemen ring in the new year at the Goodman

WITH FREE TICKETS TO A CHRISTMAS CAROL ON DECEMBER 31

christmascarol To celebrate the brave men and women in the armed forces, Goodman Theatre will provide over 500 free tickets to its closing day performance of A Christmas Carol on New Years Day (2pm). The local servicemen and their families invited to attend include companies deploying to Afghanistan in January. The audience will be rocking to the holiday spirit with the music of Chicago band, Fair Herald, in the Goodman’s lobby prior to the performance. Community Day is coordinated by Goodman Theatre Director of Education and Community Engagement and U.S. Navy veteran Willa J. Taylor.

"There’s not a single person on the Goodman’s staff or stage who does not recognize the tremendous sacrifices military families make each day," said Willa J. Taylor, Director of Education and Community Engagement. "It is especially difficult during the holidays; as a U.S. Navy vet, I understand it firsthand. This performance, this celebration is just one small thing Goodman could do to say ‘thank you’ to all the men and women serving their country both here and abroad, and to support the families who love them."