Jan 042014

The North Shore Weekend, Jan. 3, 2014

Brian Posen is serious about being funny.

The 49-year-old Glencoe native runs the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, which this year features more than a thousand performers and takes place Jan. 9-12 and 16-19. He’s also the artistic director of Stage 773, the former Theatre Building complex at 1225 W. Belmont in Chicago where the festival is held.

He also runs the beginning improv program at Second City and teaches three acting classes a week at Columbia College. He’s also a member of The Cupid Players, the comedy group he founded 14 years ago.

He says he has not had a weekend off in 11 years.

“Wait, when did I become an adult?” he muses half-seriously about his crazy schedule.

The answer might be that he’s always been an adult, inclined to the arts and management, because both strains run in the family. His aunt was Barbara Cohen, who was the first executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. His grandfather, Sam Posen, founded Beltone, the hearing aid company, now headquartered in Glenview. His father, Lawrence, helped build it into a successful global enterprise.

He took up piano at 5 and by 9 played better than his 18-year-old sister Laura. “At which point I quit and grew my fingernails back,” she says.

Posen’s life has been a mind meld of commerce and comedy. He starred in musicals at New Trier and was a criminal justice and psych major and business minor at Indiana University. “After all, what do nice Jewish boys from the North Shore do but go into business?” he says.

What turned him around were acting classes at Second City and Columbia, which he loved. “My dad gave me until 30 to find my way,” he recalls. “Fortunately I found it at 29.” He got a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Illinois, and since then he’s been producing, directing, performing and teaching around Chicago non-stop. “Comedy, Shakespeare, musicals, commercials, film, you name it,” he says.

Sketchfest, as the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival is also known, came about as a way to fill the Theatre Building. He began the first Sketchfest in 2002 with 33 groups and 132 shows. This year there will be 159 groups and 188 shows. Performers hail from Canada, England and Italy as well as across the country. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend what is billed as “the largest sketch comedy festival in the nation.”

Posen’s mission is two-fold: to provide a supportive venue for artists in an environment of “celebration, collaboration and community,” and to offer the public a great entertainment value. Tickets start at $14.

“I know I’m the stupidest businessman in the world,” he says of the ticket prices. But by encouraging people to come, he says, he can invite more performers, provide more shows and bring in bigger crowds.

Between Cupid, the festival and teaching, Posen has helped legions of performers and developed sketch comedy – which unlike improv is largely satirical and completely scripted – into the art form it is today. “That’s why he’s a legend in the Chicago comedy scene,” says Jill Valentine, Stage 773’s director of operations. “I can’t tell you the number of times someone has walked up to him and said, ‘Brian, you changed my life.’”

There’s been a price to pay, however. “I should be on my second wife by now,” he laments about being married exclusively to his work. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He quotes approvingly from his grandfather Sam, the hearing aid magnate: “If you love what you’re doing, you never work a day in your life.”

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