Can’t Stop the Comedy Train

Sarah Durham • Photo courtesy of the artist

Sarah Durham has a background in playwriting, and has studied improv and comedy writing at The Second City troupe in Chicago. Durham is now the head writer for Florida Studio Theatre’s Sketch Program, and a member of FST Improv. She knows a thing or two about dramatic structure. Whether it’s Hamlet or Harpo, there’s a basic three-part template…

The key character (or characters) fight for a goal.

A crisis blocks that goal.

They rise to the occasion — or fail.

FST’s funny people had a goal all right. An ambitious one — launching a weekly sketch comedy revue.

The dream began with Rebecca Hopkins (FST’s Managing Director and Founder of FST Improv), and grew after Will Luera took the comedy throttle. The two had been working to create a weekly sketch show for over a year. And Durham was at the heart of it.

“I’d been building this new show with Josh Ford, our Director of Education,” she says. “After extensive interviews, we’d brought in seven new sketch comedy writers from across the USA. We’d also started a class, to nurture local sketch comedy writers. We were gearing up to audition performers later in the spring. It was all coming together.”

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Matt Walker, Sarah Durham, Kyle Van Frank, Will Luera, and Rebecca Hopkins. Photo by Sarah Haley.

The goal was in sight! If it all went according to plan, FST would launch its new sketch comedy show in early summer. You already know what happened next…

The virus had other plans. The crisis appeared, right on schedule.

Once social distancing kicked in, the comedy train was halted. But FST’s funny people rose to the occasion and saw an opportunity in The Playwrights Project.

In its original concept, the Project focused on developing scripted performances for the Mainstage and Cabaret. Then FST’s artistic leaders had a bright idea: Why not also develop sketch comedy?

Their suggestion got the green light.

And the comedy train got back on track at FST.

Durham reached out to humorists across the country. Did they want to participate? You’d better believe it.

Comics and comedy writers are addicted to making people laugh. It’s what they live for. The pandemic had killed the comedy. Now they’d finally get their fix.

Durham and Ford got the band together. Top comic talent, both local and national. That talent pool included both writers and performers. When it comes to sketch comedy, they’re usually the same person.

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Matt Walker and Sarah Durham. Photo by Sarah Haley.

The heavy-hitters included Julia Morales (a Chicago-based cut-up, who tours with The Second City); Robert Woo (a laugh-maker based in L.A.); Mark Kendall (an Atlanta-based wag); Kyle Shoemaker (FST’s Assistant Sketch Comedy Director); Nick Santa Maria (a Ft. Lauderdale-based performer/writer/composer); Matt Walker (a newcomer to FST Improv, and veteran of Tampa’s The Third Thought improv troupe); and Stephan DeGhelder (a Asheville/Nashville satirist).

These artists got back to work. The comedy train was rolling again.

The sketch comedy writers met weekly on Zoom. Three groups, focused on three different shows, each with its own flavor. These virtual jam sessions echoed writers rooms in the real world. Working within each show’s theme, the writers bounced gags off each other, to see what got a laugh. The sketches that killed, lived. The sketches that fell flat didn’t make the cut.

Other writers were lone wolves. They had free rein to work independently, without thematic constraints.

On a parallel track, a trio of comic performers rehearsed the emerging sketches in their own set of Zoom meetings. Walker, Shoemaker, and Durham brought the words on the page to hilarious life.

Virtual reality was always a means to an end. Live performance was always the point. Barring another crisis, it looks like this story will have a happy ending…

Sometime later this summer, the laughter will begin again. FST’s sketch comedy train is finally pulling into the station. Despite COVID, the goal is in sight. The show will go on. But it’s only a part of a larger ambition…

The greater goal? Nothing less than putting Sarasota on the comedy map. Continuing to grow our homegrown comedy community. Not only putting more comedy on stage – but empowering the talented people who create it.

That’s the reason Durham teaches a sketch comedy writing class at FST – on Zoom for the time being. But in the real world, as soon as possible.

“Laughter truly is the best medicine,” says Durham. “Maybe not for COVID, but definitely for the blues. We won’t try to deny the crisis in any of these sketches. We’re just saying it’s OK to laugh. Trauma brings people together. Laughter does too – and it feels a lot better!”

Sarah Durham studied improv and comedy writing at The Second City, the legendary Chicago comedy troupe. She’s also an emerging playwright, who recently won the Kentucky Theatre Association’s 10-Minute Play Festival. At Florida Studio Theatre, she’s the Assistant to the Managing Director, head writer for FST’s Sketch Program, and a member of FST Improv. No matter what happens, Durham plans to stay funny. That being said, she sincerely hopes there’ll be no major crisis for a while.