Instant Festival

Brian Posen teaches improv at Second City, Columbia College, and Act One. He writes and performs in his own sketch comedy troupe, Cupid Productions. But he never thought of putting together a sketch comedy festival until he was recovering from a particularly rough year. Last February, his mentor Martin de Maat died. “He gave me my job at Second City,” says Posen. “I took over his classes at Columbia College.” Things got worse when Posen’s mother died of renal cancer in July. “She had had one kidney removed 12 years ago, and she was all right for years and years. Then it hit her again.” Posen, who had been doing preproduction work for Kingsley Day’s musical Aztec Human Sacrifice, got into bed and stayed there for a month.

Aztec Human Sacrifice–completed in the late 80s as part of a musical theater development program at Columbia College–was to have received its first professional production from Posen’s shoestring theater company Broutil & Frothingham, which had rented space at the Theatre Building January 12 through March 2. With the death of Posen’s mother, the show was postponed.

Eventually Posen forced himself to get out of his apartment. He started directing rehearsals for a sketch comedy show by the Asian-American comedy troupe Stir-Friday Night. And he began to find gigs here and there for Cupid Productions, which specializes in comic songs, musical scenes, and parodies. Meanwhile he tried to find a new tenant to take over the time slot he’d contracted for at the Theatre Building. But January and February are slow months, and there were no takers. Posen briefly thought he might use the theater for a Cupid Productions show but didn’t think he had enough material to justify a six-week run.

Then the idea of organizing Chicago’s first-ever festival of sketch comedy hit him. He sent out some E-mails in late October to a couple friends. “I was amazed at the flood of E-mails I got back. People were forwarding my E-mail, and they were forwarding my E-mail to other people.”

Within a matter of days it seemed everyone on the comedy scene was talking about the idea. “It was like this grassroots thing,” says Kim Clark, director of the writing program at Second City. “Students of mine were coming up to me and telling me about this thing Brian Posen was doing at the Theatre Building.” Soon his E-mail box was filled with requests from troupes eager to perform “in a real theater.” Sketch Fest was born.

Posen put together a crowded bill involving 33 companies performing in six shows a week: one on Thursday, one on Sunday, and two each Friday and Saturday. Some of the participants are established companies like Annoyance, WNEP, the Sirens, and GayCo Productions. But many more are lesser-known groups with names like the Roosters Pist, Four Letter Productions, Monsters From the Id, and Paper Monkeys. The mix won’t just make for good theater, says Posen; it’ll be good for the performers as well. “I want to foster cross-pollination between different comedy troupes. People will come together and see how many different ways there are to write a sketch or put together a show.”

In exchange for the performance space, a standard lighting plot, use of the theater’s ticket office, and a 50-minute performance slot, Posen asked every group to chip in for publicity and allow him to take the full box office. None of the ten troupes contacted for comment had any complaints about the financial arrangements. “I’ll be surprised if I break even,” says Posen.

Sin City Swap

Early in Second City’s history it made a cultural exchange with London, sending over one of its own shows (with a cast that included Avery Schreiber and Del Close) and hosting in return a hip English troupe called the Establishment. The arrangement was made even more memorable by the fact that the Cuban missile crisis erupted right in the middle of the run, and (as Close liked to tell it) the Second City cast worked the fear that the world was about to blow up into its show.

Now the company is repeating history: in February Second City’s main-stage cast will trade places with the Amsterdam-based troupe Boom Chicago, founded ten years ago by a pair of Northwestern grads and stocked mostly with Chicago-bred talent. The trade is especially interesting because for years Second City has accused Boom Chicago of cherry-picking from Chicago’s improv scene, attracting potential stars with the lure of working in a foreign city, especially one with such liberal drug laws. “I once wanted to hire [the Daily Show’s] Miriam Tolan for the company,” says Second City producer Kelly Leonard. “And she told me that that was nice, but that she had this opportunity to work in Amsterdam she couldn’t pass up.” In recent years Second City has turned the tables on the Amsterdam company, using it as a kind of finishing school for future Second City performers.

Last September Leonard and Boom Chicago founder Andrew Moskos arranged to meet and hash out the issue of “stealing each other’s performers,” says Leonard. “We had one of these great two-hour, three-hour dinners.” Out of that dinner came the idea for the exchange. Now the only questions remaining to be answered are which company will suffer the greatest culture shock, and whether or not that culture shock will be good for comedy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.