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Comedy Workshops and Comedy Festival

Learning to be funny in Milwaukee

Jul. 29, 2014
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If you want to see lots of great comedians, there’s an easy solution: Visit Next Act Theatre sometime between August 7 and 10 for the Milwaukee Comedy Festival, which will bring in the most talented performers and groups from the area and surrounding states.

Want to learn to be just like them? That’s not as difficult as it might seem either, thanks to an increasing number of comedy education opportunities in Milwaukee. The granddaddy of them all, ComedySportz, celebrated its 30th anniversary in June. While the troupe is best known for performances, it’s also a place where people interested in learning comic improvisation can attend workshops taught by instructors like Dave Nelsen.

Nelsen got involved with ComedySportz through a high school team in 1992, and began teaching the High School League in 2004 and adult workshops after that. “It’s something I knew I wanted to do from the time I started taking classes myself,” he says. ComedySportz’ three workshops last eight weeks, with seven weekly classes and a final performance for friends and family. Each level is progressively complex; 101 sessions begin with exercises to get people comfortable on stage, while 103 classes focus on scene work and expand from short-form improv (the games and antics ComedySportz is best known for) to long-form, which requires players to build extended improvised narratives. People who get through all three levels can perform in ComedySportz’s Rec League, which hosts free shows Sunday afternoons.

Those classes tend to have an even mix of aspiring actors or comedians and those just curious, Nelsen says, but either group is likely to succeed if they follow one simple rule: Listen, listen, listen. “Often,” he says, “when it’s three beginners on stage, each one is trying to say the funniest thing possible and nobody is listening to anyone. The best approach to improv is to simply listen to one another, react and let the funny happen.”

ComedySportz isn’t the only option. Down in the Underground Collaborative, Milwaukee Comedy itself is getting into the educational act by providing space for local comedians to host workshops.

One is Amanda Eaton, who performs sketch comedy in a troupe called Sketch Marks and improv at T.I.M.: The Improvised Musical and elsewhere. She’s led two specialized classes at the UC already (one focusing on character building, the other on a long-form improv structure called The Harold), and is currently working with Milwaukee Comedy founder Matt Kemple to offer more regular sessions for both casual participants and active comedians looking to learn long-form skills.

Eaton also emphasizes listening as a critical skill, but adds that it’s as important to connect with your instructor. “I love to have a dialogue with the people who are taking my class,” she says, “because I want to make it a collaborative effort.” One of her goals is to take that connection to the next level, building workshops where instructors and students work together to build new styles of long-form—though that comes second to building up Milwaukee Comedy’s roster of workshops in the first place.

Eaton says she believes Milwaukee’s right on the edge of breaking out as a comedy hub—and with workshops like this, it’s easier than ever to become one of the people making it happen.

The Milwaukee Comedy Festival runs Aug. 7 to 10 at Next Act Theatre; visit festival.milwaukeecomedy.com for schedules. ComedySportz workshops begin again in October, visit comedysportz.com for details. For more information about Milwaukee Comedy workshops, visit milwaukeecomedy.com.


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