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

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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.

 

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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.