Sketchfest 2011: Q & A with Clayton Weller and Kate Montgomery

This year’s Seattle Sketchfest kicked off last night at the Theatre Off Jackson with a three-hour show that included domestic disputes, surrogate patricide, mummies, Betsy Ross, Southern-style revenge, hair gel, sharting, incredibly lifelike dreams, a disquieting “Lone Ranger” re-enactment and not one, but two cautionary messages from the future. I sat down with artistic director (and member of Seattle sketch mainstays Ubiquitous They) Clayton Weller and managing director Kate Montgomery to find out what we can expect to see in the next two days, and what they hope to accomplish with this year’s festival.

What’s new about this year’s Sketchfest?

Clayton: This year is the first year that we’ve had an emphasis on a full-year program, so we’ve been putting on classes and workshops, and getting groups together that are putting on shows during the year. So there’s a big local focus. This year we made a big point to say that every local group that applies, we’ll find a way to get them into the festival in a way that will be comfortable for them and highlight them. Whether you’re just starting out or whatever.

What does the workshop program consist of?

CW: Well, we’ve run a one-weekend intensive class with Becky Poole last year – she’s been in a lot of sketch groups, she’s now in Chicago. We did a class with Mike Matthew from Cody Rivers.

Kate: There’s also a six-week sketch class. A lot of local standup comedians ended up taking that class. We’re also doing a mashup shortly after the festival this year, which is a three-day workshop of sorts.

CW: It’s sort of a jump in kind of thing. We get everybody together on Friday, and these are people who have been to festivals and toured around the country, done Canadian fringe festivals. As well as people who have never been onstage before. We get together on Friday, have dinner, everybody throws out sketch ideas, then we pick ones to write during the evening, come back the next day and read all of them, edit them, cast them. We have a rehearsal, go home and memorize all of our lines on Saturday evening. Then we come back the next day and turn it into a show. It was crazy last time. Someone had a giant inflatable turkey – like a lawn ornament – and that got worked into a sketch.

KM: It was amazing to see how many sketches they worked the turkey into. I was impressed by that alone. We’re also working on offering an eight-week class during the spring where we have a different instructor, or co-instructors, every week, doing a different segment. And hopefully part of that class will be about how to put a promo video together, how to submit to Sketchfest or other sketch festivals, things like that.

Are there any groups that are new to the festival this year that you’re excited about?

CW: We have Teenager of the Year. They’re Chicago guys. I’m really excited because they have this free-form style. One of the things I look forward to about the festival, for me personally as an artist, is you get to see these guys who are coming out of totally different communities, so they have very unique styles. One year these guys named Cedar & Lee came up, and their last sketch was just one guy sitting in a chair not saying anything and the other guy was just standing there shouting about how awesome he was for probably five minutes. And I know that sounds bad now.

KM: It was hilarious at the time. It’s an exciting scene right now because not only do you have all these new sketch groups who are popping up, but you have a lot of sketch groups that were around ten, thirteen years ago who are doing revival shows. We have Disgruntled Bit Players back this year. We’re trying to get more local people involved in the film festival just because Seattle is such a rich film community.

Sub Pop Records is a new sponsor of the festival this year. How did that come about?

KM: We have a wonderful staff worker in development who actually works at Easy Street Records, so she was able to get in touch with them.

CW: They were really excited about it. I think they’re to start up a comedy recording kind of thing.

KM: They put out Eugene Mirman’s last album and there are a couple of other comedians on there as well, so it’s good to see that they’re also supporting local comedy.

Seattle Sketchfest is the first festival of its kind, yet it’s been somewhat surpassed in national status by San Francisco’s Sketchfest. Why do you think that is?

CW: Well, the history of sketch comedy in Seattle is one of booms and contractions. And there have been two such booms. People refer to them as first wave and second wave. So in the early nineties there was a wave that I think birthed Almost Live! And then there was another burst in the late nineties, early 2000s and that’s where The Habit came from, and the Disgruntled Bit Players. And everybody was putting on sketch comedy, everyone was doing it, and that’s when the festival came about. That was the first Sketchfest, with all local groups. And it kept getting bigger for a couple years, but then it just kind of imploded on itself because there was no community support system in place.

KM: I think it’s also that people leave. When people get to a certain point, they leave us for New York, San Francisco or LA.

CW: We’re trying to make Seattle a place to come for sketch comedy, so people will come here instead of leaving.

KM: We’re trying really hard to build community, which is why we have standup comedians on the festival with the sketch comedians. We want to see a lot of cross-pollination, so hopefully there’ll be more shows where you see both. There are some prime examples of people who do both, like Travis [Vogt] and Kevin [Clarke].

CW: We want to keep the lines of communication open between the groups. One of the best things about Sketchfest is introducing all these groups to one another. So this opens the door for opening for other sketch shows, and there’s cross-pollination between the audiences, which helps build a stronger fanbase for the comedy scene as a whole.

Seattle Sketchfest continues tonight and tomorrow at the Theatre Off Jackson in the International District, with shows at 7:00 and 9:00 both nights. The full schedule, as well as a list of this year’s performers, can be found here.