Before the New Year’s Eve hangover fades, more than 1,000 sketch comedy performers will make their way to The Windy City for the 16th annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, taking place January 5-15 at Stage 773, a four-stage theater on the north side of Chicago. The festival is the brainchild of Brian Posen, the artistic director for State 773 and program head at Second City Training Center.
This year’s festival will feature 160 sketch comedy groups coming from all over the United States and Canada. The event is expected to draw about 11,000 attendees, Posen said. Tickets start at $15 up to full-festival passes for $150.
The goal is to feature a variety of comedy styles from a diverse and dynamic assortment of performers, he said. “We’re going to have 188 shows over the course of eight days,” Posen said in an interview with The Interrobang. “Every hour on the hour there will be four different sketch comedy groups performing, so patrons come and have to decide which one to choose. They have to make a little bit of a Sophie’s Choice. “Do I go with Danny Pudi, the celebrity (who played Abed on Community)? Do I go with the scrappy people from New York? Do I go with the all-lesbian group from Portland? Do I go with the people from Montreal? You can find any flavor of comedy, from political satire to clowning.”
Pudi and TJ Miller from Silicon Valley will be featured performers at this year’s festival, but Posen said his goal is to present every act as equals, regardless of name recognition. “Everyone is treated the same here. We learned that very early on, that we don’t want one group to overshadow another,” Posen said. “There’s no award for Best Group or anything. This is a celebration of sketch comedy in all of its different forms.”
Posen has established a six –person panel to review applications and decide the line-up for the festival every year. Prospective participants are asked to submit a 15-minute live performance, which is then reviewed by the panel, which includes sketch performers and producers, as well as people from outside the industry, Posen said. “We watch hundreds of videos over the course of three weeks each October,” he said. “I’ll come home from rehearsal or a class at midnight and then I’ll sit down and watch three hours of videos. It kills the teacher in me to have to turn people away and deny opportunities, but as a producer, it’s wonderful to have so many strong acts to choose from.”
Posen created the sketch comedy festival in 2001 when performance space opened up at Stage 773 on the north side of Chicago. “I had an all musical sketch group called The Cupid Players. We secured a spot in the complex, but I thought they weren’t strong enough at that point to sustain a seven-week run, four nights a week,” Posen said. “I had just worked with the all Asian sketch comedy group Stir Friday Night and I thought ‘what if I get them and Cupid and this all Hispanic group I knew, and an all gay group I knew … what if we all come together and we do a run?’ So I reached out to the 30 groups or so that were in Chicago at the time and we put it together.”
Posen and other organizers traveled to other festivals to try to learn what they needed to do to make their festival grow and improve.
“We went to the Boston Comedy Fest, the Seattle Sketch Comedy Fest, the Miami Improv Festival, and saw how they managed traffic, how they sold tickets. We learned from what others were doing and incorporated it into what we were doing.”
The festival grew beyond Posen’s expectations. “By the fourth year, we had to turn people away at the door,” he said.
Tickets for the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival are available at www.Stage773.com or at the box office at 1225 W. Belmont. For additional information on the festival, visit www.chicagosketchfest.com.