The booming market for comedy
Q: What do you get if you cross three expats, Amsterdam and a good idea? A: Boom Chicago. Ashley Campbell meets co-founder Ken Schaefle.It's a brave man who sets up in the middle of Amsterdam and puts on a show that makes fun of the Dutch. Especially if that man is American. How dare he come over here and say such things?
But Boom Chicago, which takes no hostages in its satire of the Dutch (and American) way of life, is a roaring success with expats, tourists - and Amsterdam natives.
"The Dutch are far more into the show than anyone else," says 31-year-old co-founder Ken Schaefle. "They've pleaded with us to be harder on them."
Sometimes bravery pays handsomely. What started off as a summer show in 1993 has turned into a year-round performance employing 12 American actors and 70 others. By all accounts Boom Chicago is raking in the cash from its base at the Leidseplein Theatre.
From idea to reality
Schaefle is from Chicago itself - seen by many as the home of improvised comedy. Variously bar tender, boy scout leader, bass player and technical designer for bands, he moved to Amsterdam seven years ago to turn an idea for an English language improvisation and comedy show into reality.
The scheme was hatched by Schaefle and college friends Jon Rosenfeld and Andrew Moskos in February 1993. The three saw a gap for comedy in Amsterdam's entertainment scene - and also for an English language show in a city full of expats and tourists. Rosenfeld and Moskos, who were creating an improv troupe in Chicago, and Schaefle, who had never worked in the theatre before, took the plunge. They were joined shortly afterwards by film studies graduate Saskia Maas. By May the idea was turned into a living, breathing show.
In the beginning, Moskos worked on the business side of things while performing every night. Rosenfeld was artistic director, and Schaefle continued doing what he does best - the technical stuff. Indeed, on the day we met he was carrying a flashlight and various pieces of technical kit on his belt.
The company moved into the reconstructed Leidsplein Theatre three years ago. Tousle-haired Schaefle still acts as Boom Chicago's technical director. There are three shows: Heineken late night - dedicated to the art of improvisation; Everything's Going to be Alright (and other lies) - scripted comedy; and the Best of Boom Chicago - a mix of the two.
It's probably their improvisation skills - where ideas are thrown from the audiences and the comedy is made up on the spot - that have made the company's actors something of local celebrities. They do it well.
Schaefle attributes the shows' success to Boom Chicago's "focus and powerful concentration" - whatever that means. But that "focus" has translated into tickets: Friday and Saturday nights at the 280-capacity theatre are usually sold out.
It's a good thing that business is going well because Schaefle has fallen in love with Amsterdam, particularly the "beautiful architecture, good bakeries, the absence of large American franchises and the fact that all you need is a bicycle to get around."
And as a seven-year veteran expat, he's happy to give some advice to those who have just arrived. "Pursue all your hobbies from America here in Holland. It's a great way to break into society," he says
Schaefle has taken his own advice and started Sonic Boom, a band including cast member Brendan Hunt.
"The people who do best are the people who get involved and stick their necks out."
He's certainly done just that. The entrepreneurs have made a very nice business for themselves and become a landmark on the Amsterdam map. Schaefle's success is no joke.
Subject: Boom Chiacgo