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

           
           

REVIEW: Bubble Tea Party (Stir-Friday Night)

   
   

Stir-Friday Night celebrates 15 years

 

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Stir-Friday Night presents
   
Bubble Tea Party
     
Written/Performed by the Company
Directed by Pat McKenna
Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
777 N. Green St., Chicago (map)
Through Nov. 20  | 
Tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

It’s been 15 years since the late Quincy Wong and Keith Uchima founded Stir-Friday Night. The troupe got its start after a group of Asian-American actors met through Jade Monkey King, a musical Uchima created in 1995. The duo decided that Asian-American writers, directors and actors needed a bigger showcase.

"When you saw Asians on stage, they were the doctor guy, the second-banana guy," Uchima recalled at opening night of Stir-Friday Night’s 15th-anniversary revue. So the two men worked to found a company that would feature exclusively Asian-Amerians. Ultimately, that evolved into the sketch-comedy and improv troupe that’s still going strong – Stir-Friday Night.

This current group includes artists, mostly U.S.-born, who trace their heritage to India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Their 15th-anniversary show, Bubble Tea Party, doesn’t show everything this company is capable of. Sketch-comedy revues tend to be uneven by their very nature — this one is more so than most.

The cast members all perform very well — when the show suffers, it’s in the writing. Some of the skits are lame — such as a recurring business about Olympic-style "Geisha Games" and an overlong, elaborate sketch of crude puns set in historic England; blue humor doesn’t seem to be this troupe’s strength. Other sketches start with interesting premises but never manage to come together, as in an odd piece that lampoons the Tea Partiers with an Alice in Wonderland theme and one in which a guy tries to convince his friend to eat 25 tacos in 60 seconds.

Undeniably, the company does its best work when it concentrates on the Asian-American experience. Two hilarious skits feature Amrita Dhaliwal playing an immigrant South Asian mother interacting with her American-born offspring.

The show follows up the scripted pieces with some improv, also with mixed results. The lineup isn’t set yet, but the company expects a few alumni to make guest appearances as well.

Stir-Friday Night deserves congratulations for its 15 years, and this show has enough funny moments to be worthwhile, but the troupe isn’t tapping the talent pool of Asian-American comedy writers deeply enough.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Ensemble: Melissa Canciller, Amrita Dhaliwal, Samantha Garcia, Erica Ikeda, Jin Kim, Christine Lin, Harrison Pak, Avery Lee and Jasbir Singh Vazquez

  
    

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