A whole mess of comedyKerry Reidon January 9, 2023 at 8:15 pm

When I was in theater classes at Columbia College Chicago back in the Pleistocene era (i.e., the late 1980s), certain reverse-snob assumptions came out from time to time about the Theatre School at DePaul (which had changed its moniker a few years earlier from the Goodman School of Drama). 

DePaul was, to us, the high-toned conservatory where students could be dismissed at the end of a term for what we assumed were capricious reasons. (The fact that several of my friends were people who had been cut from DePaul fed this picture of the Theatre School as a cutthroat elitist institution, in opposition to populist open-admissions Columbia.) They didn’t let their students work on projects away from the university during the school year, whereas we were openly encouraged to audition wherever we could. And, since Columbia’s theater department was headed by the late Second City legend Sheldon Patinkin, it was a given in our wired-for-righteousness twentysomething brains that if you really wanted to understand improv and comedy writing (even if you weren’t already taking classes at Second City), there was no better place to be than Columbia.

Times change, and now both Columbia College and DePaul have dedicated programs for comedy studies. Of course there are also a slew of training programs outside of the Second City leviathan, including recently reopened iO and Annoyance

MessFestWed-Sat 1/11-1/14: first show 5 PM nightly, last show 11 PM, Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont, theannoyance.com, $5 per show (buy tickets to five shows and get one free), $50 four-day pass

The latter has teamed up with DePaul’s comedy arts program to produce MessFest 2023, a four-night extravaganza of student-created sketch, stand-up, improv, music, and more, opening this Wednesday and taking over the entire Annoyance complex on West Belmont through Sunday. It’s part of an ongoing partnership between DePaul and the Annoyance; in spring and fall of 2022, students presented work in progress through a residency at the Annoyance. (They also worked open mikes at the Cornservatory and Bughouse.)

It’s far from a seat-of-the-pants, anything-goes anarchic approach. The comedy arts program at DePaul, headed by Liz Joynt Sandberg, brings in a wide range of students in writing, performance, directing, technical production, arts management, and dramaturgy. To once again upend assumptions, dramaturgy isn’t just about working with new playwrights or researching old ones. As MessFest dramaturg Josephine Clarke tells me, “Comedians do a lot of dramaturgy. They just don’t call it that.” 

I spoke to Clarke (full disclosure: she was a student in my Dramatic Criticism class at DePaul last spring) and her classmates in early November, where I also watched a rehearsal for a MessFest sketch show under the direction of Jeff Bouthiette, musical director and composer for several shows at Second City (including the most recent mainstage, Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not) and elsewhere. And Clarke’s assertion seems borne out by the way the rehearsal process I saw incorporated playfulness without losing sight of structural principles. 

The students under Bouthiette’s direction ran through a series of short sketches, including one where an improbable number of people began filling up an automobile (a reverse clown car, if you will). Discussions about how to vary the pace and variety (including concerns about too many static scenes featuring two people in chairs) wouldn’t have felt out of place in a dramaturgical discussion on showing, not telling, in a scene from a “straight” play. 

Sandberg, who took over the DePaul comedy arts program just ahead of the 2020 pandemic shutdown, notes that she’s always been interested in “the academic study of comedy, but specifically sort of this really unique combination of applied improv and applied comedy—theory as well as practice.” 

The first MessFest went up in fall of 2021 at the Theatre School. But going outside to the Annoyance was something Sandberg (who performs with the LGBTQ+ variety show Baby Wine, as well as at other comedy venues) always had in the back of her mind. 

“Before I even started my [DePaul] job, I set three big goals for myself,” she says. “And one of them was to develop a partnership for students with the Annoyance. In my opinion, in the current landscape of Chicago comedy, the Annoyance is just one of the most important spaces that we have for really developing and enabling new talent in the city. I also think that folks that are continuing to perform at the Annoyance are people who are really alive and curious as artists. I think that’s so important for the students to experience and to be in community with.”

During the group meeting in November before the students dispersed into separate rehearsals, Sandberg reminded them, “This is not the time to chill out.” And, in conversations with other students, it’s apparent that nobody is treating this comedy festival lightly, no matter how fun the generative process is.

Lazarus Howell, who is appearing in the Afrofuturist sketch show Black Stardust 3023 (playing Wednesday and Friday at 9 PM), notes that the spring residency at Annoyance was “MessFest 1.5. I think we did nine weeks of weekly 90-minute shows. The first six of them were variety shows and the rest were show-shows, with titles and names and whatnot. It was very stressful at the time, but I think it was really important for me. Because most of the shows were things that had been done before [in class], but I liked the idea of doing it in a different setting and working on it so we were crafting it into a better piece.”

Rockie Wenrich, a vet of the first MessFest in 2021, notes that the idea of an anchor sketch show, like the one directed this year by Bouthiette, was a feature of the first festival. “But this one is different because now we’re writing songs,” they note. Several of the students are also playing instruments alongside recorded tracks. In addition to the Annoyance residency, the students previewed material on campus for their peers with informal Friday-night performances. “The rewriting process is super crazy. Working in comedy is so much more fast-paced,” Wenrich notes, adding that “a lot of people who work on the technical side in theater are used to being able to map out the whole process, and with comedy, everything is devised.”

Dwight Bellisimo is serving as tech director for MessFest, and he notes that a big part of his job is to “teach everybody the skills they need to get their show into the Annoyance and not make my life crazy by me having to design all these shows. I see my job as a liaison between what happens here and then helping it manifest in the Annoyance.” Teaching the various shows how to set up their own sound cues is part of that process, he notes. “I feel like even in the more traditional theatrical world, tech speaks its own language, and actors have no idea what the hell is going on in the tech world. Vocabulary is a big barrier between where I work and where the comedians work.”

Among the dozens of separate offerings in MessFest are intriguing titles such as The Roast of No Longer Topical Celebrities, hosted by Audrey Gold (Wednesday 11 PM); Looking for a Third, a comedy drag show where the stars attempt to pick up “a third and final member of their nuclear drag family” (Thursday 11 PM); Paper Bag Puppet-Prov, where contestants have to create an original show (with puppets, of course) a la the Food Network’s Chopped (Friday 6:30 PM); and City Wide Improv, featuring improv teams from colleges across the city (Saturday 5 PM). In a way, it feels like this year’s MessFest is taking the place of the old Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, which also used to run in January.

For Sandberg, MessFest is more than a showcase of diverse student talents. She’s partnering with a firm to write a case study for the lessons this process holds for corporations.

“I really think that a lot of what the students are doing neatly and sort of distinctly addresses a lot of the grievances that large institutions are facing in trying to navigate nonhierarchical leadership demands or facing a huge workforce of millennial and Gen Z folks who are just no longer up for this very formal, very hierarchical structure of collaboration,” says Sandberg. “That’s not what they’re curious about. So we’re studying it and trying to understand what it is about the way that these young folks are working together that enables them to be so extremely productive, so iterative, so sort of flexible and responsive to problems while also producing really high-quality work.”

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