Kids and improv go together like frosting and sprinkles.
Judy Fabjance is a beloved member of The Second City community. Teacher, performer, friend, partner, mother– Judy is everything. She is also courageously battling Stage 4 breast cancer, which has recently spread to her brain… but will never touch her infallible spirit.
If you wish to support Judy and her family with your prayers, support or donations, please visit this website.
As I walked by a comic book store the other day, I had this odd pull to go in for a lady-centric comic; I wanted a real hero. I walked in and scanned the store ‘til I found a small section titled:
Chicks Who Kick Ass
I looked across the covers, each woman looking exactly the same: huge tits, tiny waist (though each with a different hair color, because we are all different. Hot, but different).
These were heroes. Sure, they kicked ass, yes, but none were the Lady Hero I was looking for. There was a huge deficit between what I saw and what I wanted. I wasn’t sure what it was, but for some reason that day I wanted– no needed– to find a superhero that girls could identify with, and these stacked chicks just weren’t doing it for me.
Once Upon a Time in 2011…
I knew I liked teaching improv to teens, and I wasn’t doing a whole lot in Chicago. My friend Anthony recommended I teach in After School Matters through the Outreach and Diversity Program at Second City. Basically, I would be paired with an experienced improv teacher, and together we would be going down to the South Side twice a week to teach high schoolers improv.
“I have you paired with Judy Fabjance. Do you know her?”
“No, but I’ve heard of her.”
“You’re going to love her; she’s great.”
First, let me say that when I am told someone is “great,” I feel it is a personal challenge to discover why they are not, in fact, great. I don’t know why. I think I like being contrary. And then let me say this is not the first time I had been told this about Judy.
Though I’d never met her, I’d heard her name frequently over the years. The improv community is pretty small, and it was almost weird that we hadn’t actually crossed paths. Even more disconcerting was that everyone who had ever brought up Judy had said the same thing. Come to think of it, I had never met anyone who didn’t like Judy.
Now I was full-on suspicious.
In this community, being liked by everyone is reserved for the dead and… I dunno, it had never happened before.
“You’ll love her.”
We’ll see, I thought to myself. I’m can be preeeetty hateful.
The Origin Story
She was unassuming at first. We had to recruit teens to the program, which meant sitting in a cafeteria during lunch trying to get kids to sign up, then killing time together between lunch periods. “Ha! This’ll do it,” I thought, “No way she survives this with her greatness intact.” I can be like a wild animal at first meetings. Or a child. Shy, confused and cagey as hell. But Judy? She was nice. And real. I felt immediately at ease with her. We talked about writing and life; I found out she was a mom. Okay. Impressive… but nothing special. She had a quality I couldn’t put my finger on. Comfort? Kind of, but not quite…
She couldn’t keep her powers hidden for very long. She carried me through teaching that semester. I was an underemployed self-involved 20-something with nothing else going on in my life, and she was a 30-something woman with a daughter and a real life.
And She. Carried. Me.
She was always positive and open and honest; she was there. And it wasn’t easy. In the time we were there, we had to stop class while two girls beat the shit out of each other. She had to kick a student out because he was abusing his girlfriend, and we listened as a child told us the “low” of his day was his cousin getting shot.
Judy stayed calm and powered through and did it so seamlessly that I followed suit. There were bright spots of course: a kid named Shaun who’d been in the program every year and clearly loved it; a girl reading aloud the most beautiful, heartbreaking poem I have every heard about her life; having the kids give me my favorite nickname ever: “Redline.”
I only taught one semester with Judy. I left to do some really important show that I don’t remember.
The Secret Identity
I heard that Judy beat breast cancer and I’d never been happier. Oh, did I not mention she had breast cancer? Probably because, to be honest, it was hard to believe she had had cancer at all. I mean, it hardly ever came up, and I couldn’t see it. If I had cancer, I would make sure everyone knew at all times that I was dealing with something so they could remember to be impressed by me. I’m like the toddler who falls down and starts crying loudly and then looks around to make sure all the adults are watching. I want credit for my misery.
What was it? Charisma? No, I’ve known a lot of douchebags with charisma, it wasn’t just that…
And… A Plot Twist
I saw our former ASM student, Shaun, coming out of a Level B class at Second City. Shaun from the South Side. Shaun who stayed with improv because of Judy, Shaun who knew what improv even was because of Judy. My heart blew up. In the good way. In the “Grinch-at-the-End-of-The-Grinch” kind of way.
Then I heard Judy’s cancer came back. She was fighting again. That fucker wouldn’t stay dead. Like Lex Luther rising from the grave– and instead of saying, “This is bullshit! There are rules! You can’t just COME BACK to LIFE!” — SUPERMAN FIGHTS HIM.
I would’ve quit, or slowed down, or whined, or lost hope.
SHE FUCKING FIGHTS.
I ran into Judy in the Teachers’ Lounge at Second City, as I sometimes do. Bald and gearing up for another round of chemo– and that bitch took the time to ask me how I was doing and listened compassionately and filled me with confidence. Then she taught a :evel A class. And she looked good. Not like cancer-good. She looked “Bright Eyes, Big Energy”-good.
Like, “I could lift a car off you and dance away”-good. And from what I know about chemo and cancer, she probably didn’t feel that way. The bills alone…
I now feel the need to note that I am generally a bitter, petty person. But never in a room with Judy. She elevates you to her level. She makes you feel good. She give you hope. She spreads joy. And she does all this separately from the fact that her story and her struggle is inspiring. You walk into the room a dark stain and walk out whistling– and it’s not ‘til half a block away that you even realize why. It’s confusing. It’s magic. It’s a gift. What the fuck is that?!
If you’ve met her, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you really should. It would make you mad how badass she is… if she didn’t also somehow make you feel special. There aren’t many people that can do that. I only spent a few hours a week with her for a few months and she had this impact on me. I’ve seen her teach; I know what she does for her students. The amount of people whose lives she’s enriched is almost unfathomable, and that’s not even counting the audiences that have seen her perform and the people she’s shared her story with– or her daughter, or her partner, or her friends.
If she can give that much to me, how much has she given to them? What is that? What is that quality she has?!
I think I figured it out. The Dutch have a word that has no real English equivalent, but it’s kind of like cozy, warm, nice. It’s the feeling you get when you see a good friend after a long time, a feeling of connection and time spent with loved ones. It’s fun. It’s “Gezellig.”
That’s the word I would use to describe Judy.
I don’t know why I walked into that comic book store looking for a superhero. I know a real one:
Judy, The Gezellig Girl.
TO BE CONTINUED…