Thursday marks the first performance of Willie Opper’s comedy group, Mass St. Productions, debut performance at the 17th annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival — the largest festival of its kind in the nation.
Opper is a Topeka native — he grew up north of the city, attended Seaman High School, and began his comedy career at Topeka Civic Theatre in 1995, with their comedy group ‘Laughing Matters,’ now known as “Laugh Lines.”
“I’d always done theater, I grew up doing theater and music, and was always kind of intrigued by improv,” Opper said. “I grew up watching BBC stuff like ‘Monty Python’ and ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ ”
Sketchfest is a two week festival of non-stop comedy. Opper explained that Stage 773, a local performing arts venue, opens up all four of its stages for 40-minute comedy segments.
About 130 performers are scheduled to participate between Jan. 11 and Jan. 21.
Opper is part of two comedy groups, Mass St. Productions, which began in 2013, and Clown Car to Sicily, which formed in 2011. The former will be performing at the festival Thursday and again on Jan. 13.
“My favorite part is the variety of each sketch,” Opper said. “There’s so many different groups, there’s sketch, there’s standard comedians, there’s burlesque, there’s one person shows. There’s so much of this different kind of art form — it’s from everywhere.”
Mass St. Productions has participated annually in the festival since 2013, and performs a series of scripted sketches, which Opper said are similar to Saturday Night Live’s process.
“Mass St. is a satire sketch group, so it’s much more politically charged (than Clown Car),” he said. “We do a lot of stuff that’s very much making fun of what’s happening in the media now and happening in politics — everything along those lines.”
After working with TCT for 13 years, Opper moved to Chicago where he studied for three years under The Second City, famously known as a starting point for comedians like Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and many others.
Cultivating improvisational skills is much like crafting your singing voice, Opper explained — some people have a natural gift, and others undergo years of training to fine-tune their instrument.
“There are a lot of people that are amazing at improv that definitely have a natural knack for it, but I’ve also worked with people who have completely learned improv on the fly and it just became an acquired skill,” he said. “There’s really no saying which works better, because I’ve seen both.”
Opper said he believes his talent is a mixture. While he began working in improv at a young age, he’s worked years to hone is talent, and said he continues to collaborate with other comedians to continue working — because the world of comedy is always changing.
For more information about Sketchfest, visit stage773.com/sketchfest.
Contact reporter Savanna Maue at (785) 295-5621 or @CJFoodFun or @SavannaMaue on Twitter.