First Laughs, Second Time Around

By Jessica Gable

When Greg Luick submitted his one-act play, Work in Progress, to Piccolo Theatre’s First Laugh One-Act Festival last February, he wasn’t expecting to win. In fact, he hadn’t even expected to finish the play.

“It was originally a revue sketch that didn’t really seem to have an ending,” Luick said. “I wrote most of it 15-20 years ago and it was just sort of filed away. Then when I read the criteria for the First Laugh Festival, I was just sort of thinking about it and the ending just sort of popped into my brain. So, I just added that ending onto it and made it a one-act play. And that was what won the festival.”

Located inside the Main Metra station in Evanston, Piccolo Theatre is the only playhouse devoted to scripted comedy in the Chicago area. Specializing in comic pieces from commedia dell’arte to modern comedy, the company’s mission is simply to make people laugh.

Now in its second year, the First Laughs Festival invites writers to submit a one-act play based loosely on their memory of their first laugh. The audience votes, and the winner receives $250, an invitation to expand the one-act into a play that will be performed at the next year’s festival, and a bottle of Few bourbon.

“Very much like Hemingway,” festival founder Tony Lawry joked, “to encourage the writers.”

Work in Progress follows the Writer, played by Herb Metzler, as he struggles to finish first a stage play and then a screenplay as his various characters, played by Morgan Lynn Sutter, Brittany Vogel and Ross Compton, fight for a say in the storyline in his head. At various points in the play, the characters’ identities change based on their own whim, the inclinations of the Writer and later a Hollywood producer, played by Jim Phelan, who decides to co-write the piece.

“I’m a nuclear physicist, a school teacher and a Stepford housewife all in the span of 20 minutes,” Sutter said, grinning, “which is fun.”

The tight-knit cast has been attached to the project for a year, working with Luick and Lawry to make Work in Progress a workable full-length play. After Luick won the competition, he set about writing a second act. One darker draft appeared leading to what Luick referred to as the “ill-fated reading” in May. Around the same time, Lawry signed on as director.

“‘Remember, Piccolo’s a comedy theatre’,” Luick said. “So, I went back and spent the summer working on other things and then in October went back to it. You know, just wrote silly for 40 pages.”

Several months after encountering the characters they played in the first act of Work in Progress, the actors reunited to contribute to the show’s next act, which was still being written.

“That’s something I had never done,” Ross Compton recalled. Compton plays Harrison, an insecure but happy-go-lucky figment of the fictitious writer’s imagination. “It’s kind of new for all of us, I guess, but it’s been super-cool because you very rarely get to revisit a role that you’ve done once already. So it’s almost giving you a whole year to nail down a character.”

The First Laugh One-Act Festival ran from Feb. 6-7 and 13-14.

Photo at top: Cast members Jim Phelan (left) and Herb Metzler (right) relax between scenes rehearsing for Work in Progress. When not acting, Phelan is finishing his master’s degree in counseling psychology, while Metzler is an art handler at the Art Institute. (Jessica Gable/Medill)