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updated: 1/5/2011 4:21 PM

Suburbanites shine in 10th Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival

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  • Ensemble member Ryan Ben assists a youngster painting the set for a Storytown production. The group performs at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15.

      Ensemble member Ryan Ben assists a youngster painting the set for a Storytown production. The group performs at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15.
    Courtesy of Lindsay Williams

  • Storytown member John Sabine performs with his honorary sidekick for the day during a previous performance. Storytown, an ensemble that does interactive improv with children, takes the stage at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15.

      Storytown member John Sabine performs with his honorary sidekick for the day during a previous performance. Storytown, an ensemble that does interactive improv with children, takes the stage at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15.
    Courtesy of Lindsay Williams

  • Tim Stoltenberg, left, Julie Poteet, Austin Campion, Rachel Grandi and John Sabine comprise Storytown, which includes children from the audience in its interactive improv performances.

      Tim Stoltenberg, left, Julie Poteet, Austin Campion, Rachel Grandi and John Sabine comprise Storytown, which includes children from the audience in its interactive improv performances.
    Courtesy of Lindsay Williams

  • Their performance at this year's SketchFest marks the swan song for World's Best Dad, an ensemble comprised of University of Illinois graduates. They hit the stage at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16.

      Their performance at this year's SketchFest marks the swan song for World's Best Dad, an ensemble comprised of University of Illinois graduates. They hit the stage at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16.

  • The multicultural ensemble Urban Indigenous has a no-holds-barred approach to comedy. "I can honestly say we're a group that's not afraid to be funny," said member Shantel Rodriguez. The group performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6.

      The multicultural ensemble Urban Indigenous has a no-holds-barred approach to comedy. "I can honestly say we're a group that's not afraid to be funny," said member Shantel Rodriguez. The group performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6.

  • An Evening in Review, an ensemble comprised of North Central College graduates, performs at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16.

      An Evening in Review, an ensemble comprised of North Central College graduates, performs at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16.

 
 

If Brian Posen had had enough money to produce a musical like he wanted in 2002, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival might never have happened.

Mounting costs eventually caused Posen to scrap the musical, but he still wanted to honor his commitment to lease space in the former Theatre Building, now known as Stage 773. So Posen contacted members of several sketch comedy groups about performing in a seven-week showcase, and The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival was born.

Since then, SketchFest has evolved from 30 local ensembles performing on one stage over seven weeks to 129 groups -- hailing from around the country and Canada -- performing simultaneously on three stages over two weekends now through Sunday, Jan. 16.

"We do performances every hour," said Megan Flanagan, executive director of SketchFest and Stage 773. "If you're up for it, you can see six shows in one night."

Not only is it fun and affordable, said the Naperville resident, it's a surefire cure for the post-holiday blues.

Posen, who serves as the artistic director of Stage 773, still runs the festival -- now in its 10th incarnation. Among the hundreds of performers are sketch-comedy veterans like Des Plaines' Kyle Cannon, newcomers like former Schaumburg resident Shantel Rodriguez and groups like An Evening in Review, an ensemble comprised of North Central College graduates.

Over the years, audiences have come to expect certain things from a SketchFest show, Flanagan said.

"You expect it to be well-written. You expect it to be well-rehearsed. You expect it to be funny," she said.

SketchFest delivers all that and more, Flanagan said. And with 800 artists participating, audiences may just catch a rising star, like Danny Pudi, a festival veteran currently co-starring in NBC's "Community."

Even if they don't, laughs are all but guaranteed -- thanks to comedians of all kinds.

The realist

Kyle Cannon discovered theater and improv at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. A self-described wallflower, the Des Plaines resident says improv and comedy helped break the ice.

At the University of Illinois, Cannon joined a student improv group and dabbled in sketch comedy. In the process, he discovered he loved making people laugh. He also learned that improv and sketch comedy work best when the performers come together as a team.

"It's fun to pop out that one joke that makes you look awesome," Cannon said. "It's even better if you support the other players … and make everybody else look good."

After graduation, he formed World's Best Dad with college friends who had moved to Chicago. This year marks the group's second appearance at the Sketch Comedy Festival.

"It gives us the chance to network," says Cannon, 25. "There are teams made up of Second City and iO Chicago legends. You can learn a lot from those people."

It also marks what Cannon describes as the group's last hurrah.

All of the members have day jobs and perform with other groups. Cannon, for example, studies graphic design, but still harbors a dream of pursuing comedy and acting full time.

"The realist in me wants to continue with graphic design and do (sketch comedy) as a hobby and hope I'll catch a break somewhere."

The newcomer

Shantel Rodriguez wanted to do theater in high school, but fear kept her off the stage. About a year ago, the 27-year-old finally conquered her nerves and auditioned for the Latin sketch ensemble Salsation!

"They said I had a great read, but didn't think I was ready yet," said the former Schaumburg resident who says she has always enjoyed making people laugh.

Cast as an understudy, she caught on quickly and was performing with Salsation's touring ensemble within months. She's also a member of Urban Indigenous, which she describes as "a big melting pot" comprised of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Korean and black actors.

"Our humor is very real. There's no-holds-barred," said Rodriguez, who returned to Schaumburg recently to perform in a fundraiser at Laugh Out Loud improv club.

Although she's only been at it a short while and admits she has much to learn, Rodriguez says she has discovered one of the keys to being a successful improviser and sketch comedian.

"It's not all about you," she said. "It's a group effort. You have to lean on your teammates. You have their back and they have your back."

Like many of her sketch-comedy colleagues, Rodriguez works a day job and hopes to one day make comedy a career. But while she'd love to make it big, she's content just to be onstage.

"If I can stay in Chicago my whole life and perform in Chicago, I'll be happy doing that," she said.

The enthusiast

From the time he was a child, Ryan Ben's parents urged him to "do the best you can, every day and hope that will make all the difference."

The 24-year-old Elgin native took their advice to heart.

"Every opportunity I have is the opportunity," said Ben, who helped write the selections his group Storytown -- an ensemble that does interactive improv with children -- will perform at this year's SketchFest.

While he aspires to one day perform on Second City's main stage or on a TV comedy show, he says that's not the end-all, be-all for him.

"As long as I'm given the opportunity to perform or write, that's always going to be enough for me," said Ben, who switched from business to theater during his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh.

Not knowing what to do or where to go after graduation, he returned home and took improv classes at iO Chicago.

"I love the fact that it's completely different every single time. You have a chance to be involved in something that will only happen once," he said.

Imagining how great it would be to write the scenes down and perform them again led to Ben enrolling in sketch-writing classes.

The young performer says he struggles to find a way to combine the forms -- to create improv that feels complete and sketches that feel fresh and new every time they're performed.

Most of all, Ben's happy to be part of a team.

"To work on a piece as part of a collective group of people who love this art form," is the best opportunity yet, he said.

The filmmaker

Getting invited onstage during a Second City show had a big impact on Downers Grove South High School graduate Zoran Gvojic, who has been doing sketch comedy and improv ever since.

Now 28, Gvojic is a filmmaker who performs with Long Pork, a group that draws inspiration from Looney Tunes and is making its third SketchFest appearance.

Gvojic says that he gained confidence studying at Second City but learned more at iO Chicago, particularly about improv.

"I still use a lot of improv in the films I make," said Gvojic, whose work can be seen at lowcarbcomedy.com. But he likes the control that scripted or sketch comedy affords.

That said, good sketch comedy isn't just about funny quips and stage business.

"You have to be able to create a relationship, and the relationship has to be somewhat believable," he said.

Gvojic says watching other sketch groups doesn't just entertain, it inspires.

"You will see a lot of very talented people who just don't get the kind of exposure that comes from 'Saturday Night Live,'" he said. "And you will see daring things you've never seen before."

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