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: Cupid: Plugged (The Cupid Players)

This Cupid needs to plug some holes

 

The Cupid Players

  
The Cupid Players present
  
The Cupid Players: Plugged!
  
Created by The Cupid Players
Directed by
Brian Posen
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through October 2  |  tickets: $18   |  more info 

Review by Barry Eitel

Relationships. Thanks to relationships, we have Michael Bolton, Shakespeare, and reality TV. It seems all art, maybe even our whole existence, boils down to human interaction. There’s bucketloads of emotions to mine.

The Cupid Players, the masterminds behind Cupid Has a Heart On (got to love those puns) which enjoys an open run at iO, know how to rip out the funny side of love and bare it on stage. Their newest venture, Cupid: Plugged! (got to love that name recognition), is part musical revue and part sketch comedy with a rock concert twist, including roadies. The Players cram a ton of material in the hour-long show. The final setlist is scattershot and disjointed, which is a shame considering the comic talent singing their hearts out.

Each number is completely different from every other one. This works perfectly on Youtube, but not so much in a live stage show. Most of the songs revolve around that crazy little thing called love (and/or sex, and/or desperate loneliness). The boys fall for the girls, the girls nag the boys for leaving towels around the home, one girl wakes up next to a really fat guy after a particularly drunk night. But the songwriters also stray from the theme, and a tune is thrown in about a young man torn between Judaism and bacon. Not that the random injections are unfunny, but they muddle the entire experience. It feels like they needed to fill a few more minutes.

cupid players logo The show is set vaguely in the Reagan era, with plenty of legwarmers, ripped t-shirts, and transition music pulled from heavy metal radio. Yet, someone sings a diddy describing his iPhone. The women claim that they are wives and mothers, but they look like they’re a couple of co-eds headed to 80’s night at the local bar. Some characters would take the show to the next level, even if they were incredibly superficial and just a way to string the songs together. But as it is, Cupid: Plugged! has no string.

The cast, which created the show, has plenty of insight into romance, love, and lust. Sometimes the concepts are simplistic, but these are usually the funniest parts. One of the sharpest moments involves Ranjit Souri sitting alone on a park bench warbling about how “sex would be fun.” A fair amount of the lyrics are duds, but on average the songs inspire much more laughter than yawns.

It helps that the cast is having a ball performing. Through all the dancing, guitar riffs, and synchronized hand movements, they keep the energy high and receptive. Some props have to be paid to Sam Lewis’ guitar antics and Billy Sullivan’s stomach-shaving. Far and above the best part of the show, though, is a 70’s pop duet between Jill Valentine and Tim Soszco, complete with ridiculous wigs and sunglasses. I’ve never actually rolled in an aisle, but I came pretty close.

Soszco and Valentine’s performance was so awesome because they created characters. If director Brian Posen and his merry crew of musical comedians came up with some plot or even an overarching idea, it could be comic bliss. The Cupid Players are without question talented; they don’t just perform sketch, they sing it. But Cupid: Plugged! feels like the Players tossed a bunch of jokes in a blender, dumped the contents out on-stage, and then set the whole thing to music. This isn’t a comedy album, it’s a live show. We want cohesion.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

cupidPlayers

Director Brian Posen is joined by Carisa Barreca, Ashley Bush, Andrew Graves, Sam Lewis, Israel Pederson, Tim Soszko, Ranjit Souri, Billy Sullivan, Jill Valentine and Amanda Whitenack.  The band includes Sam Lewis and David Hymen.

Sketchfest comes to Chicago: do not miss it!

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Storytown

by Ian Epstein

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival:

  • Lasts only 8 days
  • erupts with nearly 150 performers
  • consists of nearly 100 troupes
  • is calling your name

sketchfest-logo“We’re creating comedy,” says Brian Posen, the founder and Executive Producer of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  With a head full of curly hair, Posen wears a neatly trimmed beard, a spotless labcoat and a pair of white angel wings, swaying slightly.  He’s standing on a stage in a cloud of fog.  Black horn-rimmed glasses frame his face, giving him the distinguished air you’d expect from a mad, comedic scientist.  A fellow actor, also clad in a labcoat, holds up the machine emitting all this fog.  This is Bri-Ko, one of the sketch comedy troupes participating in the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  It’s 4:30pm on Thursday, January 7th, and they’re putting the finishing tech touches on their show.  In three and a half hours the curtain rises simultaneously on three stages to kick off the 9th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, or  SketchFest for short.  And Bri-Ko is one of the troupes that Executive Producer and Founder Brian Posen himself will perform in. 

Sketch Comedy – a history course

Hundreds of years ago and late at night, a writer fumbling over a desk with a dim lamp couldn’t think up the right word for an elusive thought.  Blindly, the writer scratches down a word on the page — a word that is not English at all — that is, in fact, Dutch. 

That elusive idea that the writer wrestled with? Lost to history. It definitely wasn’t a perfect drawing or a final draft, “what the Dutch Painters call a schytz” or a “hasty piece.”  No, this was something else .  An idea too flighty for familiarity.  It needed to be lean and light like a single shriek of laughter.  The “first schetse of a comedy,” perhaps.  From its first uses in English, a sketch is something intimately connected with the person who created it.  It is practically incapable of life outside of that person.  And from its first instance, a sketch has always been about the ability to get across a lot of ideas using a combination of speed and variety – it’s a quick bit of ingenuity or an outline traced in midair. 

What is sketch comedy?

Is it improv?  In a word: no.  Sketch Comedy involves reams of paper full of words and tons of ideas put forward in these things that you might call scripts.  You’d be mistaken, though, since these scripts, animated by the writers who wrote them and appreciated by the audience that views them, become what they call sketchs

Sketches of what, though?  Of movies?  Sometimes.  A TV mini-series?  A full on farce à la Moliere with costumes?  A song cycle or an extended piece of silent, physical comedy?  Commedia dell’arte for the new decade?    A made for TV movie performed live with two people playing ten roles?   Are these sketches just blueprints for knock knock jokes?  Does each maybe contain some shard or kernel from the source of all knock knock jokes ever?

The sketches, Posen explains, differ as widely as the troupes that perform them.  He continues, adding that sketch is the comedic form that is all the rage in the comedy scene these days.  Talking quickly, he runs through history, stopping here and there to point out trends in American comedy with insight and nonchalance. The 80s were all about stand up, he observes, and the 90s saw the rise of improvisation as the ruling form well  into the recently closed out naughts, where the sketch takes off around the time as SketchFest’s 2001 inaugural year.

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Bri-Ko Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Buffet Shark

SketchFest comes to Chicago

Back in 2001, Posen, working as a producer, booked a stage at Theatre Building Chicago to put up a musical by the Chicago writing duo Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day .  The musical was an ambitious production called Aztec Human Sacrifice.  But the bottom fell out and Posen was left with a reserved stage at Theatre Building Chicago.  There were no other takers for the stage and nothing was waiting in the wings.  So Posen hopped on the phone and sent emails to his sketch comedy friends and about a month later the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival met with huge success.  Posen possesses that rare, inspiring combination of an actor’s energy, a comedian’s wit, a teacher’s patience, and an off-hand eloquence that allows him to talk about the traditions of comedy and connect them to complex theories about how theater should work, theories that an academic might trace back to Brecht or far beyond. 

Over its elongating history (who knows what’s in store for next year’s 10 year anniversary…), there have been a variety of trends in what SketchFest emphasizes.  2010 marks an explosion of kid-centric sketch offerings for groups of kids and by groups of kids spilling across the stages by day.

But be sure not to go to a late night show expecting family-friendly content.  Posen warns that sketch, a theatrical form that draws its energy from aggression and hostility before turning it into satirical gold, is largely rated R or PG (depending upon the parent or the rating organization).

In a lot of ways, SketchFest resembles a professional conference — where comedy is the currency of choice and the CEOs appear in clown noses or costumes.  Posen and the SketchFest staff bring together a select panel of performance professionals (only half of the groups that apply make the cut) who gather to discuss and workshop the finer points of their craft.  And a huge part of sketch comedy’s beauty is that the craft is so self-effacing — the better its done, the harder you laugh.  You don’t marvel at the delivery of a particularly difficult line so much as you crumple to the floor crying hysterically.  The countless hours spent slaving over the placement of punchlines in a script or perfecting what is too often perceived as the innate mystery of comic timing fall by the wayside; comedy’s most audible byproduct isn’t applause, it’s laughter. 

Chicago Theater Blog Recommends

(Don’t be afraid to read about the groups or check out the schedule.  Take a look at the Kids friendly offerings!  And remember — they all passed the preliminary inspections so any group is a safe bet!)

Kanellis & Armstrong
1/8/10 @ 9pm
1/9/10 @ 9pm

Hard Left Productions
1/8/10 @ 10pm
1/9/10 @ 10pm

Bri-Ko 
1/8/10 @ 11pm
1/9/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)
1/16/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)

The Cupid Players
1/9/10 @8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Animosity Pierre
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 9pm

In Yo Face
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Rabbit Rabbit
1/15/10 @ 10pm
1/16/10 @ 10pm

BriTANick
1/15/10 @ 11pm
1/16/10 @ 11pm

The Backrow
1/16/10 @ 7pm

sketchfestpromo