For Emma Chapman, pursuing a career in comedy is serious business.
A 2010 graduate of O’Fallon Township High School, Chapman is opening a new sketch revue she and kindred spirit Alissa Skeen have written and star in, “Hate Mail,” in Chicago.
The two-woman show will play at Judy’s Beat Lounge, one of The Second City Studio Theaters, Fridays, 9 and 16, at 10:30 p.m. They will also do a performance on March 10 at 10:15 p.m. at The Improv Shop in St. Louis.
The prestigious Windy City school, established in the mid-1980s, is connected to the mecca of sketch and improvisational comedy and where the pair met as students.
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The Second City opened in 1959 as a small cabaret theater and began a comedy revolution. It grew to be the most influential comedy empire in the world. Alumni include John Belushi, Tina Fey, Jordan Peele, Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and many “Saturday Night Live” cast members.
Skeen grew up on the West Coast, and after studying fashion in New York City, she took a three-day immersion class at Second City three years ago. That was the beginning of a new direction and comic collaboration with Emma.
The duo first wrote and performed a show centered around characters they created through improv, “Hell’s Belles,” in September 2016.
“We created it the night we met at a dinner party. We spent time in the kitchen doing Southern accents for far too long. We wrote it into a show,” Emma said.
As writers, Emma said they bounce ideas off each other, and then meet back together, and it works very well.
“You’re better off with somebody else’s pair of eyes. It works for us,” Alissa said.
“Hate Mail” is the culmination of an idea sparked by a real-life contentious exchange about a broken item received in the mail.
“We finally landed on what to write — fear of confrontation, the bravery behind a screen, how you bottle up emotions, the darkness of anger,” Emma said. “The characters confront their vulnerability, ‘Why is the universe doing this?’ It was kind of cathartic.”
More avenues are open for women in comedy now, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Emma.
“The climate has changed for women in comedy. What we are seeing now is much support. Women are smart and funny, and it’s not just ‘female’ comedy,” she said.
One of her heroes, Tina Fey, was part of Second City’s first equal-split cast — three men and three women performers.
“She paved the way for us, and now there are opportunities for everyone. Women are being respected for their ideas,” she said. “And there’s not just one type of funny woman — Amy Schumer is different than Cecily Strong and Maya Rudolph. There is not just one role.”
Both Emma and Alissa mentioned how supportive their families are.
Her parents are Keith and Maggie Chapman, and she has three siblings: Ben, Mae and John. The family moved to O’Fallon when she was 4.
“As actors and artists, we’ve had so many jobs. We’re trying our best, and it is a business. We feel lucky we have wonderful support from our families,” Emma said.
“It’s our big-girl job. We have made sacrifices. It’s exhausting, not glamorous. But it propels us, keeps us moving forward,” Alissa said.
The pair also collaborate on a podcast called “Blockbuster Babies.”
“We talk about movies we should have seen by now. It forces us to open up, and we learn about all the references people make about the movies. It’s super-fun,” Emma said.
“The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Godfather” have been featured, and “Citizen Kane” is planned for a future episode.
Chapman is used to challenging herself. She studied elementary education briefly at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked various day jobs. But she didn’t give up and took the plunge, moving to Chicago in 2014. She graduated from The Training Center in 2017.
“I had dreamed this for a long time, and finally did it,” she said. “Having not finished college, this program was, in a way, my college degree.”
The Conservatory Program is a highly competitive year long course wherein students use improvisation to write a sketch show. You must first complete a year of improv training, then audition for the program. Only about 60 students make the first round of auditions which is then cut down to about 40 students after a second audition later in the program.
“Getting accepted into the Conservatory at Second City was a mixture of the intense joy you feel when you do something you’re afraid of, along with validation of the path I’ve chosen. I could point to this and say, ‘Yeah, I play pretend onstage, and it turns out some people like it,’” she said.
Not getting cut in the second round of auditions was bittersweet, Emma said.
“You’re so relieved that you get to stay in, but some of the students you’ve already grown close with and formed characters and ideas with do get cut. The beauty of that is the opportunity to do your own thing down the line,” she said.
The rigors of comedy training involve more than passion and commitment.
“You go in a billion directions. You train in improvisation, but you also train in writing and acting. It’s super-awesome to learn improv, and you have to be real — honest, vulnerable. I like that it is really about opportunity,” she said.
The fundamental rule, “Yes, and …”
“You’re not allowed to say, ‘No.’ And you build on that. As an adult, you play pretend, so you revisit being a kid. You do have a memory component — you play on things created onstage, and must be quick with references,” she said.
When you perform with people you know, you can participate in what’s known as “gift-giving,” she said.
“You set up a performer to really shine — they use their skills,” she said.
Emma explained that she has an intense interest in cults, while Alissa is a big fan of the “Real Housewives” reality TV shows, so they could throw out a related reference and the other person can run with it, such as Branch Davidians or NeNe Leakes.
If Emma earns a spot in one of the touring companies and mainstage ensembles, she said it would be an “amazing” opportunity.
“While that would be incredible, I’m always going to work on my own projects and inject my point of view and experience in my writing and performance. Sometimes that means getting it done yourself and underselling tickets — but it’s the dream,” she said.
For now, she is working as a nanny for six children while writing and performing. The family has two Great Danes and a gecko, too, she said.
“The next step for me is an audition for the Severn Darden Graduate Program, which is a year-long program where an ensemble, a house company, creates a sketch revue with the help of a director,” she said. “This strengthens performance, as you have a show weekly and is one way to get your foot in the door of actually being hired by The Second City.”
While growing up in O’Fallon, Emma said she performed in school plays and musicals, fondly recalling being a Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and in the chorus of “Bye Bye Birdie.” On the high school speech team, she did original comedy.
“I think what was offered to me in the fine arts program was great, and once I got into high school, I was really nurtured in that,” she said.
She enjoyed being part of the Missoula Children’s Theatre summer program and was in “The Music Man Jr.” at Looking Glass Playhouse.
In 2009, she competed in the Miss O’Fallon Contest but lost.
“I just always looked up to Miss O’Fallon as a kid, and it was a chance to be on stage. Kind of silly, but something I remember fondly. It makes for a great fun fact at auditions — you’re usually asked to state your name and a fact about yourself to give the auditors time to jot down some notes,” she said.
She hopes they can take “Hate Mail” on the road even more.
“This is hard work. It’s important to be dedicated, to become who you want to be,” she said. “I hope I can inspire others who want a career in the performing arts.”