Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival smartly comingles comedy genres
By Mike Thomas Chicago Sun-Times January 8, 2014 6:20PM
Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, Jan. 9-12 and Jan. 16-19, Stage773, 1225 W. Belmont, $14- $150. Visit chicagosketch fest.com
Updated: January 10, 2014 11:04AM
When it launched in January 2002, the brainchild of Chicago actor and comedy teacher Brian Posen, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (then and for years thereafter known as SketchFest) was a last-minute gathering of roughly 30 groups that performed for a couple thousand patrons.
This year (lucky 13) the annual event’s growth spurt continues, with more than 800 performers in 159 groups doing shows for a festival-estimated 10,000 attendees — all over the course of two weekends between Jan. 9 and 19 at Stage773 on W. Belmont.
The most gratifying aspect for Posen, who is also the artistic director of Stage773 and an instructor at Second City, is the comingling of ensembles — many of which might not otherwise cross paths.
“They get to talk about the work with each other,” he says. “They get to steal from each other. They get to be inspired by each other. And that’s what really geeks me out.”
A small handful of groups on the festival’s roster has been involved from the start (including Posen’s own group, The Cupid Players), and some of their members spoke with the Sun-Times about how the festival has changed over the years and to what degree it has helped promote their work.
Artistic director, Salsation
Early on, Velazquez recalls, SketchFest was “pretty much a wild, wild west kind of thing” — a loosely assembled gaggle of sketch performers working in semi-obscurity. Over the years, however, it has grown into a nationally prominent, “very fine-tuned machine” that’s proven increasingly effective on the promotional front. “We’ve have everything from great reviews to people handing us money after a show to just respect,” Velazquez says of the festival’s impact on Salsation, a Latino troupe. “It’s also opened us up to a lot of different audiences,” he adds, and enables them to expand their creative horizons by working “outside of our comfort zone.” As the direct result of festival performances, he says, individual Salsation cast members have been recruited for commercials and other theater companies. And even though it’s harder than ever to land a spot on the festival roster, Velazquez still gets the sense that artistry trumps politics. Though there are politics. “To keep this festival alive,” he says, “you have to play the game.”
Cofounder/ensemble member, The Backrow
Upon graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his comedy ensemble The Backrow was formed, Matt Trupia and his mates migrated to Chicago and quickly signed up to participate in the first SketchFest in 2002. As luck would have it, festival founder Brian Posen was then (as now) teaching at Second City, where several Backrow members had him as an instructor. From its humble beginnings as merely another place where Backrowers could showcase material, it has become much more. “It provides an amazing opportunity for groups to have a stage in a really great theater in a really great neighborhood with a pro production team behind you,” Trupia says. “Which for small sketch comedy groups or anybody who’s independent is a really cool opportunity that you don’t get very often.” As a promotional tool, he says, the festival earned them loyal fans who’ve followed the group’s work for more than a decade.
Ensemble member, Stir Friday Night
Although Avery Lee has been a member of Stir Friday Night for only four years, he is well aware of how his group has been positively impacted by its longtime association with the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. Participants from the start, the Asian Stir Friday Night players have produced such comedy standouts as “Community” star Danny Pudi and Steven Yuen of “The Walking Dead.” “There is some benefit to the exposure, because they put resources into PR for the whole festival,” Lee says. “So you can get some exposure that may translate into [bigger] audiences throughout the rest of the year. I think one of the main reasons why people apply is because it’s like a convention, in that you’ll see people from all over the world … who also give importance to sketch. … You come back from it and you see all these other artists doing their stuff and you’re inspired. I think sometimes it can be a bit lonely, and a very small fraction [makes] money from doing comedy stuff. So it’s very fun and it’s reaffirming. And the audiences are great.”