Brett Mannes waved off my compliment. "They're my best friends. If we didn't build a theatre, we'd be hanging out together anyway," he says, setting down his Starbucks cup. If you or I had accomplished half as much as Brett, we'd print banners with our faces on them. But that humility and team spirit are part of what makes him special.
Brett is a producer for Second City Communications, the corporate service arm of The Second City, producing team building workshops and event entertainment by day.
And when he's not promoting improv and producing shows he spends his free time promoting improv and producing shows as the Executive Director of ph Productions and the new pH Comedy Theater, a theatre whose existence is in large part Brett's doing--the compliment he waved off.
Off stage, on stage, on the page, Brett's constantly pushing Chicago comedy forward. I was lucky enough to pick his brain about what makes him tick.
I know some of the things you do, but there's got to be more. What are all the different companies and projects you're involved with?
I am really just focused on my producer role at Second City Communications, and my Executive Director role at The pH Comedy Theater. I unfortunately had to scale back on other projects that I love doing, like being an ensemble member of the amazing GayCo Productions, in order to stay sane. So right now, it's corporate training through improv during the day at Second City, and running the best new comedy theater in Andersonville by night.
But I got to say that some of the most fun I had in 2012 was getting to perform in "The Annoyance Theater's Steamwerkz: The Musical." If an opportunity like that comes up again, I would have to take it. I mean, I got to sing and dance in a towel for two hours. Living the dream!
How do you get and stay so motivated?
I've always been a busybody, taking on way too much to satiate this weird desire to overachieve that has been with me my whole life. That's what gets me motivated. But what keeps me motivated is getting to work with some of the funniest, nicest, most surprising artists in Chicago. The company members of pH Productions, for instance, are a family to me. Their limitless creativity and exuberance, and their constant churning out of great comedy and great show ideas, is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
I also truly believe in the work that Second City Communications does, bringing better communication and creativity to the corporate world. Not only do I get to put so many of Chicago's talented improvisers to work through SCC's corporate entertainment arm, but, I truly marvel at its training side. It feels great helping corporate American relearn what it means to treat one another like human beings again through respectful give and take. It's very real and meaningful.
Which past project are you most proud of?It's a tie between the first two scripted shows that pH put up when we opened The pH Comedy Theater in October, The Room: The Musical and The Assemblers. I got to perform in the former and direct the latter. Not only were both shows critically and commercially successful, but they were also the result of my best friends' passions brought to life on stage.
The Room was probably the funniest show I have been a part of. The laughter never died backstage despite a long weekly run. And The Assemblers allowed me to finally direct sketch comedy. The cast was made up of my favorite people on the planet and the subject matter - superheroes - is one that I have a deep, shameful love for.
What are you working on now that might top that?
I am currently performing in a show I helped write called Same Sex, Different Gays at pH. It is running through March and will return for Pride Month in June. It's a musical sketch comedy show about relationships in the LGBT world. Not only is it yet again another labor of love with people I love, but it is a show that I think brings some unique but relatable truths to light. Things are said (well, sung) about gay life that typically aren't said, which is what excites me about the show.
I am also really excited for the annual event that pH produces, the Chicago Zombie Pub Crawl. We are actively planning that right now and I cannot wait for April 20 to get here already. It's the most fun day of my life.
What's your favorite thing about doing comedy in Chicago?
My favorite thing about doing comedy in Chicago is the infinite opportunities the city provides. Second City, iO, The Annoyance, The Playground, CIC, Comedysportz, and now places like Upstairs Gallery and pH - what other city has this many options for groundbreaking and inventive comedy?
Outside of these meccas, there are so many chances to do stand-up, straight theater, storytelling, indy shows ... there are so many chances to play. Plus, I have to mention the artists again. Chicago has the most crazy but level-headed people in the world. You don't have the weirdness that comes with what LA and NY do to people's heads. You just have talent and the love of play here.
You work with a lot of different and talented people. What do you look for in a collaborator?
I think it's important to surround yourself with people who are open to strange ideas. I like the type of performers that know the "rules" of comedy so well that they know when to stay true to them and when breaking them will hit.
I like players who have a dark side, but aren't negative or depressing. But most importantly, I look to create with people who share the same love of making strangers in the dark laugh.
When you're not working (if there's ever a time), what do you do to relax?
[Laughs] Well I'm married to the best guy on the planet. So any time I get to spend with him is all the downtime I need. I like going to see other people's shows to make sure I keep seeing comedy in new and different ways. But it seems the activity I enjoy the most is wringing my hands in worry and/or wishing I was on a stage.
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