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Under one roof: What’s so great about Chicago Sketchfest?

Sketchfest 2011

There's just something about Chicago SketchFest. Every January, the nation’s largest sketch comedy festival brings over 160 sketch groups and thousands of comedy fans under one roof at the theater complex Stage 773.  I have heard these numbers in countless festival guides and write-ups, but I am still left wondering: What do the numbers actually mean?

What is the impact of bringing so many performers and fans together? In the age of Spotify and Netflix, having access to an abundance of entertainment options is no longer extraordinary in it’s own right. So what makes Chicago SketchFest so special? What is that indescribable magic that keeps performers coming back year after year -- scraping together travel money, braving a rickety flight on Spirit Airlines, and trudging through the dirty slush of Chicago streets -- only to take the stage for a total of 80 minutes of unpaid performance?

This week, #TheEarlyDraft speaks with four performers about what the festival means to them.

SketchFest Chicago founder Brian Posen

SketchFest Chicago founder Brian Posen

Brian Posen, founder of Chicago SketchFest

Fourteen years ago, Posen started the festival as a way to fill an empty performance slot at the theater. That year, the fest was seven weeks long. “We almost died,” says Posen. “When it was over, we turned to each other and said ‘That was exhausting. That was stupid. Let's do it again’.”

Since then, the festival has grown into a comedy institution that somehow avoids the pretension and cut-throat competition that one might fear at an event of its size.

"There's absolutely no ego,” says Posen. "There's no ‘…and the award for best goes to…’ It's just one big community. Everybody is celebrating. Everyone is collaborating. It’s 1,000 like-minded artists under one roof.”

Sketch group Ho Thespian Action

Sketch group Hot Thespian Action

Shannon Guile, member of Hot Thespian Action

This year, Shannon Guile and the members of Canadian sketch group Hot Thespian Action make their debut at the festival.

“The fact that the festival is all in one building is ingenious," Guile says. "It not only produces that community feel but allows the producers to run the festival incredibly smoothly.”

In contrast to many comedy festivals in which audience members are spread out attending shows all over the city, the Chicago SketchFest brings all fans and performers inside the walls of Stage 773, a theater built much like a movie multiplex. A large central lobby buzzes with activity. Volunteers in loud Hawaiian shirts shout out the name of shows and sling beers to the massive crowd that waits -- like runners at a marathon -- at the doors of each smaller theater.

For Guile, these volunteers are the unsung heroes of setting such an energetic festival culture. "At the beginning of each show, all of the volunteers and festival producers run into the theatre and pump up the crowd before introducing the next act, the energy and support of the staff/volunteers is fantastic.”

Sketch group Stir Friday Night

Sketch group Stir Friday Night

Avery Lee, member of Stir Friday Night

Avery Lee, is a member of Stir Friday Night, a sketch group that has been coming to SketchFest for fourteen years -- since the festival’s inception.

Lee admits that doing comedy -- even when you are on a sketch team -- can often feel insular and lonely. However, SketchFest provides Lee and his group with a chance to watch and be inspired by performers unconstrained by theater affiliation and geography.

Lee likens the experience to that of going to a church. “Here are all these people with similar interests and beliefs as you… in the same place. I imagine that most of them don’t normally get paid to perform… and here you are, just celebrating each other.”

Arguably a career in comedy is, at it’s core, an exercise in faith. Faith that audiences will find you funny. Faith that eventually someone will start paying you. Faith that, despite the overwhelming logical evidence to the contrary, you will someday find stability and happiness just making your art.

Sketch group Citizens of Townsville

Sketch group Citizens of Townsville

Damon Royster, member of Citizens of Townsville

Daymon Royster has been coming to SketchFest for the past two years with his Chicago-based group, Citizens of Townsville. Sketchfest is the biggest performance opportunity Townsville gets each year and serves as a sharp contrast to the smaller midnight shows the group has become accustomed to.

Royster recounts seeing LA-based group Heavy Weight at his first SketchFest.  Royster was able to snag the last available seat in the packed theater and proceeded to watch the members of Heavy Weight slay their audience.

“Previously, I thought the only way a sketch group could be popular was to be on TV,” says Royster.  “[But] here were performers that my mom and dad had never heard of, yet they still held weight and clout in the sketch community.”

Until that point, Royster had also believed that the only way to get on stage was with the permission of gatekeepers at large Chicago comedy institutions. “Sketchfest opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars just to be with people you like and make something you find funny,” he adds.

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If these comedians' anecdotes about SketchFest stir something in you, I strongly encourage you to apply to perform at next year’s festival.  As someone who has been lucky enough to perform at the festival for the past five years, I can attest to the fact that it is one of the best ways to build an audience and hone your voice as a group.

"Sketch is a great environment to breed strong artists” says festival founder Brian Posen. "Writer, performer, musician -- we have to do it all. This art form really trains us to do more than just memorize lines on a page. That's why it launches careers.”

With that, here are three things that hopeful SketchFest 2016 performers should keep in mind:

1) Invest the time and resources into making a great audition tape. Posen admits that the festival has had excellent groups rejected year after year from the festival because they did not take the time to make a tape that was high quality and showed the group’s voice.  “If you are sending a seven minute sketch,” says Posen “make sure that it’s excellent.”  The selection committee is rooting for you, but they still want to see your best material with as little wasted time as possible.

2) Just send it.  Posen’s advice to applicants who don’t ‘feel ready’ for SketchFest: “Don’t Judge yourself!” Judging, reminds Posen, is the job of the festival selection committee. "If you want to be part of this community, you gotta put yourself out there. You might not make it the first year. So what? You'll make it the next year. There's a reason you're doing this work. Go put yourself out there."

3) Start now.  Sure, applications for SketchFest 2016 won’t open until next fall. However, the application is the easy part. The hard part is pushing yourself to write and stage enough material to have a polished product ready to tape by the time Sketchfest submissions open. I ask Damon Royster when his group Citizens of Townsville will begin preparing their show for next year’s SketchFest.  He responds simply “as soon as this one ends."

Here’s to the work.

Want to see the magic for yourself? You can still purchase tickets to the final weekend of Chicago Sketchfest 2015.

What do you love about Chicago SketchFest?  Join the conversation on Twitter by using the #SketchFest2015 hashtag. 

CJ Hunt is a comedy writer and performer living in New Orleans. His NolaVie blog and personal brand, The Early Draft, is dedicated to comedians-in-the-making. It’s a look into the career decisions and creative processes of funny people chasing the dream. You will hear from comedians with big names. And those with names you haven’t heard of…yet. Check back each week for a look into that weird cluttered back-room workshop where comedians are made. Watch CJ work at GOcjhunt.com. Follow him on Twitter @gocjhunt.