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The Improvised Career

How Brian Posen came to start the country's largest sketch-comedy festival.

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In May 1993 Brian Posen, now the producer of the annual Chicago SketchFest, found himself living at home again. Having just earned his master's, he'd signed a six-month contract with the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, but he'd had to break it so he could care for his father, who was ill. While his father recovered, Posen worried about his job prospects. "What the hell?" he remembers thinking. "I just got this grad degree, and here I am in the room I grew up in."

He called Marty de Maat, an improv teacher at Second City and Columbia College from whom he'd taken classes a few years earlier.

He admired de Maat as a teacher and hoped to follow in his footsteps. "I went to Marty not looking for a job, but just looking to him as a mentor," he says. "He had an ability to empower you like no other teacher. He had a tremendous amount of care and love that went into every single student, every single person, he encountered."

The two talked for an hour and a half, and at the end of the conversation de Maat told Posen, "I get hundreds and hundreds of applications a year and ignore them, but I have an instinct about you. Come teach my class tomorrow." The next day Posen taught the first hour of de Maat's improv-for-actors course at Second City. Two days later de Maat called and said, "You're hired. You start next week, and you have three classes."

Posen has been teaching ever since, even as he's made a name as a director and producer. "I've never had a plan, a goal," he says. "I think that if you start doing what you love, you're going to do it well, and then more opportunities are going to reveal themselves."

It doesn't hurt that he has an overdeveloped work ethic--during the first year that he taught he sat in on five of his colleagues' classes every week. He now teaches at Second City and Columbia College, directs the musical sketch comedy group the Cupid Players, and just signed a ten-year lease on a building in Andersonville that will house three theaters. "His energy and his excitement over the creative process, as well as the performers, is absolutely amazing," says Tim Soszko, a member of the Cupid Players. "He makes you believe in yourself because he puts so much faith in you."

Posen, who grew up in Chicago, hadn't planned to work in theater. He earned degrees in psychology and criminal justice at Indiana University in 1987. "I filled in Scantron bubbles really well," he says. After graduating he contemplated getting his MBA or going to law school, but a friend told him he was funny and should take a class at Second City. He signed up and soon fell in love with improv. But he also loved playing characters onstage and decided to pursue a degree in straight theater alongside his Second City classes. Soon he began landing acting gigs, including at Stage Left, and two years later he'd graduated from Columbia College.

In 1989 a friend asked Posen if he wanted to teach an improv workshop during Highland Park High School's annual arts forum. Posen agreed but asked his friend to make sure there were at least ten students--Oprah Winfrey was giving a talk at the school at the same time. The night before the workshop he prepared by scribbling his favorite improv exercises on a napkin. The next morning Posen walked down the hall toward the room he'd been assigned. "There are hordes of people piling into this room, and I go, 'Oh, this must be Oprah's room,'" he says. "I get closer, and all of a sudden I realize it's my room."

One hour and 150 students later, Posen had decided he wanted to be a teacher. "Without even really consciously knowing it," he says, "I abandoned going for my MBA or my law degree." The next fall he enrolled in an MFA acting program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1994, the year after de Maat hired Posen to teach at Second City, Columbia College hired him as a teacher. A year later Act One Studios asked him to come up with a class. He also continued acting and in 1996 began producing plays.

In early 2001 he was struggling to put up Aztec Human Sacrifice, a musical by local playwright Kingsley Day. He'd talked to the reps at the Theatre Building on Belmont about renting one of its stages for seven weeks in January and March 2002, but he was having trouble getting the costs down--they were around $100,000, and he didn't think the show would bring in more than $40,000. Then in June his mother got sick. He canceled the production so that he could take care of her and asked the Theatre Building reps to find another renter.

Posen's mother died, and then 9/11 happened. "There was so much drastic change in so little time," he says. "I worked obsessively. That's how I compensated."

The Theatre Building reps called to say they couldn't find a new renter. Posen knew the Cupid Players, whom he'd been directing for almost three years, were talented, but he didn't think they could carry a seven-week run by themselves. He sent an e-mail to several other local directors he knew, suggesting they put together a sketch-comedy showcase. Within two weeks he had 33 groups, veterans and novices.

Posen had never done a festival before, and this one was going to be at the most dismal time of the year. He decided to give each group a four-week run and include the space, advertising, crew, and equipment free of charge, hoping he'd make his money back from the ticket revenue. The first SketchFest drew 2,000 people, and he made $1,000 in profit.

He was exhausted but convinced he was onto something. He figured his next step should be to learn how other comedy festivals worked. "I took my Cupid Players all over the nation," he says. "We went to the Boston comedy fest, the Miami Improv Fest, the Seattle SketchFest, etc. And all the while we're taking notes."

Posen cut his 2003 festival to three and a half weeks, accepted 54 groups from across the country, and added a panel of experts to talk to both the performers and the public. He'd learned that festivals often charge ensembles up to $400 for production costs, then allow them to keep a percentage of the take. But he decided to keep paying the troupes' costs and reimbursing himself with ticket sales.

Posen didn't want the festival to be just an all-star show. He wanted to use it to encourage less seasoned ensembles. He invited several new groups, some of which had never performed before, giving them the opportunity to learn from veteran troupes and gain the confidence that comes from experience.

Last year he expanded the festival to fill all three stages of the Theatre Building, hosting 71 groups during a two-week run that drew close to 5,500 people. He included experimental events such as Octasketch, in which a local veteran director is given five performers, chosen randomly from different ensembles, and eight hours to create an original half-hour show that's performed the same night.

This year SketchFest will be even bigger, showcasing 83 groups, some of them from Canada. It's now the nation's largest sketch-comedy festival. Over the years the range of the ensembles' work has expanded too. Some groups address political and racial issues, some push the limits of absurdity, some find comedy in the minutiae of human experience. One group from Seattle, Bald Faced Lie, performs an entirely silent show.

Posen loves the cross-pollination that results from the groups seeing one another's shows and talking afterward. "It's all about creating this community," he says. "It's about creating a sense of collaboration, a sense of support--networking, nurturing, exchanging information, and coming together." He laughs. "There was a patron last year who said, 'I wish my church felt like this.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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