Oh Theodora's Trevor Martin is a five year veteran of the annual Chicago SketchFest, which just wrapped up it's 12th edition this past weekend. The city's independent sketch scene is small (but growing), so a festival boasting over 150 sketch shows in eight days is obviously going to be a big to-do amongst all involved. Some sketch folks sit it out entirely (like Brian from the Mike's Hard Festivade), and others fully embrace it. Trevor's sent over some thoughts about the festival and how his relationship with it has changed.
I used to think Chicago SketchFest was an obnoxious circus of frauds. Not all the time, certainly not the first few years when I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed about The Big Wondrous Magical Chicago Comedy Scene that we’re all told about in our Level 1 classes. But there was a time when I was working an unhealthy amount to get my groups and projects off the ground and didn’t have any press or new audience members to show for it. I was extremely jaded about all the wonderful opportunities I was promised that turned out to be lies, and all the wonderful artists and collaborators that turned out to be lazy flakes who didn’t want to bother reaching out beyond their tight-knight
networks groups of friends.
So when a guy like me in a state like that sees an event like Chicago SketchFest roll around again, it should be a given that he’d see the two-weekend event as the perfect representation of all that is wrong with the Chicago comedy scene, and really any comedy scene anywhere: “90% of these Chicago groups never perform outside of SketchFest!” “The majority of them aren’t even sketch groups, they’re improv groups that threw together a bunch of sloppy, uninspired scripts before the application deadline!” “These ‘networking sessions’ are just the same people talking to their same friends and not talking to ME!”
So last year SketchFest came around and of course my group Oh Theodora applied to perform again because that’s what you do. But when the schedule came out we noticed our friends The Late Live Show were going at the same time as us. After lamenting the fact that we’d be too busy to see our friends do that show that we’re normally too busy to see, we thought of a way to use this to our advantage: we decided to stage a rivalry between our groups that involved interrupting each others' shows, and a confrontation of mockery in the lobby afterwards.
We thought there was a chance that the people who ran SketchFest would hate us for doing this. In fact, we thought they’d be so mad at our attempt to upstage their festival that we didn’t tell them about it beforehand. Some of us even thought we’d be banned. But we didn’t care; the idea was too much fun and we were all pretty jaded by the scene in general anyway. At the end of the day we’d be creatively fulfilled, and hopefully enough people would be there to spread the word about it after the fact. I just hoped the Stage 773 staff would wait until we were finished before they shut us down.
But as it turned out, they loved it.
In retrospect, it does make sense that the festival staffers would be into an idea like this. They’re all performers themselves who volunteered their time because they wanted to be a part of a huge annual event in Chicago comedy. Even the founder/executive producer of the festival dug it, and asked us in passing a few months later if we had any ideas in store for the following SketchFest (we did--a seven-group arm-wrestling tournament for which the staff was more than accommodating).
We even got a ref!
We should have figured that if such harmless, prepared, inspired events were to occur, the staff would be more likely to react like the supportive artists they are than the 80s teen-movie high school principals we made them all out to be.
Having said that, I’m not back to being idiotically optimistic about the festival as a whole. I still have the aforementioned problems about the legitimacy of many of the groups involved. When a city boasts so loudly about its comedy, and plays host to the largest sketch-specific festival in the world (yes, the WORLD), the fact that that same city has only a dozen or so groups that perform sketch regularly reeks of fraud. REEKS of it.
But when I was standing in the lobby of Stage 773 after the final show had ended, I was stunned to find that I was sad the whole thing was over. I think it was because for the last two SketchFests, I had somehow found a way to stake my claim in the proceedings. I’m a vain person who’s enormously passionate about doing comedy in this city, so when I’m performing in Chicago SketchFest for the fifth year with my third group it’s not enough for me to simply perform in my slot and be done with it. I want to be noticed, dammit, and I want more audience members and I want press and I want to write a blog post about me me me where I mention that I’ve done Chicago SketchFest five years with three different groups. So maybe that’s why I was sad about it being over: I finally got that extra attention. I finally felt like I was more than just a run-of-the-mill participant, and now the whole thing was over for another year. It really is childish, but all it took for me to scale back on my hatred of the whole thing was to be praised and supported by the very people I had problems with. Textbook jealousy.
I know it’s a copout to say, but because of this I think Chicago SketchFest is really whatever you make of it. No matter what you think it is, you’re going to have enough evidence to support your opinion while anyone making a counterpoint will have just as much evidence to support theirs. To some I’m sure SketchFest is an opportunity to showcase some of your favorite material (Shock T’s), or an entirely new show (The Puterbaugh Sisters), or a steady combination of both (Drew’s Tumbler). To some I’m sure it’s a special occasion to get the gang back together and put on a show like you used to (*Honorary Degree*, Heavyweight, Sean Miller Explosion). And to some I’m sure it’s a misrepresentation of what’s going on in Chicago comedy for the other 11 ½ months of the year (raise your hand if you’ve seen a Robot vs. Dinosaur or Creepy Hug show outside of Chicago SketchFest. I didn’t think so). All of these opinions are true, it just depends on what the festival has been to or done for you.
I used to think Chicago SketchFest was an amazing opportunity to see as much sketch comedy as I could, and hopefully meet people while doing it. Then I thought it was different pockets of friends who preferred to not speak to the other pockets and still have the audacity to call it “networking.” Then I thought it was a chance to take any big ideas I had (within reason) and bring them to life on and away from the stage, for like-minded artists and curious spectators alike. As it turns out, I was wrong and right every time.