A balanced stage picture
Rabble-rouser Angie McMahon finds an Artistic Home for Chemically Imbalanced Comedy.
Being a nomad isn’t fun. But Angela McMahon, executive producer and cofounder of vagabond theater company Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, tried hard to make it work over the last seven years. But her 20-member group won’t have to cart around its sketch, improv, stand-up and comic theater pieces for much longer. After wandering from Wise Guys pub to Frankie J’s on Broadway to the Cornservatory, CIC takes over the 40-seat Artistic Home theater in Lakeview, with its Saturday showcase remounting in the new space starting Saturday 1.
“We were under a lot of constraints being an itinerant theater company,” she says, sitting in the dusty black-box space during a break in renovations. “A lot of times all we could do was hang a drape. Now that we have our own space, we can paint it however we want.”
Doing things her way has become McMahon’s calling card. Since 2000, her company has put on Saturday-night improv showcases for lesser-known groups, staged a wide variety of plays and run three successful years of Snubfest, an annual festival celebrating the talent of otherwise rejected comedians. As CIC climbs the comedy-circuit ladder, she finds herself constantly defending the company against those who think it “too cheap” or “too small” to give much credit. Her propensity for vocalizing these complaints has earned McMahon mixed reviews from her colleagues, who either respect her determination and skill or think her just plain abrasive.
“I was called a pretty awful name by a head of a comedy festival,” she says. “I stir up trouble; I guess you could call me a troublemaker. But we just do what we do. We have to run our race and not worry about everyone else.”
McMahon admits to stepping on some toes while running: CIC’s production of Mr. Marmalade, Noah Haidle’s warped coming-of-age play, ran concurrently earlier this year with the city-produced Dog & Pony version, which upset plenty of insiders. And for the past two years, Snubfest has run simultaneously with Sketchfest (next year’s Snubfest will be in June).
But for all the griping, it’s hard to ignore her role in championing underrepresented Chicago comedians and actors by giving them show slots and encouragement. “That seems to be the overlying theme that she and CIC have created—from the point of view of the underdog,” says Jonathan Pitts, executive director of Chicago Improv Festival Productions. “People who are involved in comedy don’t always feel like Donald Trump [A-list material].”
McMahon, though, is striving for more than just a good performance: A degree from Columbia College in theater and classes at Second City and Annoyance Theatre have taught her how to act and be funny, but the knowledge she gleaned outside the classroom has allowed her to stand out. She worked with nonprofit theater Free Associates and on independent projects, learning the ropes of how to combine acting and production to create a well-rounded experience for the audience. Every time she saw a show, she would think to herself, “If this were mine, this is how I would do it.”
It’s this DIY mentality that drives McMahon—and for every person who calls her an awful name for that tenacity, there’s another who acknowledges her talent. “When you come from the artistic side you have a vision, and there’s no budget,” says Farrell Walsh, CIC’s artistic director. “Angie’s able to step in and talk about the reality of the situation.”
McMahon’s efforts have paid off with her company’s arrival in a permanent home, but not even she can plan for what’s next. “It’s interesting when an underdog becomes queen of the castle,” Pitts says. “You end up seeing things from a different point of view than before.”
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy reaches equilibrium Saturday 1.