Judy Fabjance spent 25 of her 41 years involved with Second City, where she was described as “easily the most-loved teacher” at its training center.
She worked and studied with future stars including Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris and Nia Vardalos. As an improv teacher and risk-taking performer, she influenced fledgling students and actors who responded to her kindness with a trust that helped them bloom onstage.
At 16, she used to go to Second City Northwest, the troupe’s old location in Rolling Meadows. She was interviewing Sedaris for her student paper at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect when the actor turned the tables on Ms. Fabjance.
“Amy asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, ‘I want to do what you do,’ ” said Kelly Leonard, Second City’s executive vice president.
Sedaris and producer Cheryl Sloane helped get her a job as a Second City host. A perk of employment was free improv classes.
“Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello and I just adored her,” Sedaris said Tuesday. “She was just a bundle of energy, a real treasure to be around.”
“I’ll always remember Judy as a bright and joyful and adventurous improviser whom I was lucky to know,” Colbert said Wednesday. “Her spirit and her smile were a gift.”
“She was just this kid who was such a superfan,” said Andy Eninger, head of the writing program at Second City. “Everybody wanted to protect her and watch over her and adopted her.”
Her mentors supported her during an eight-year struggle with breast cancer, offering encouraging messages and help with fund-raisers. Colbert donated a book for a silent auction and listed its value as “priceless,” colleagues said.
The Mount Prospect native died Sunday at her home in Bolingbrook.
“Man, she put up a fight,” Leonard said. “It got harder for her to actually teach, but she’d come in and visit.”
She was a member of ComedySportz and a co-founder of GayCo, a pioneering, 20-year-old offshoot of Second City with an LGBTQ perspective, Leonard said.
“Judy was there at the birth of GayCo in 1996 and helped raise our group from a ragtag queer sketch troupe to a Chicago comedy powerhouse,” according to a written statement from the ensemble. “She was instrumental in giving dozens of up-and-coming gay and lesbian comedians opportunities, confidence and strength to speak their truths, on stage and off.”
GayCo called her “a comedian, a teacher, a trailblazer, a friend, a co-star, an actor, a teammate, a co-worker, a writer, a coach, a mentor, a brilliant wit, a tireless champion of others, a role model, a daughter, a sister, a loving wife (to GayCo’s equally incredible Kelly Beeman) and, perhaps most inspiringly, an endlessly devoted mother to her amazing daughter Daphne.”
“She was my daughter, my best friend and my role model,” said her mother, Stephanie Fabjance. “If I could be as strong and brave as she is, I’ll get through all this.”
Judy was a tiny “preemie” at birth, her mother said. Doctors weren’t sure she’d survive. But an obstetrician who observed her in the nursery changed his mind.
“She was screaming and kicking her arms and legs. She was trying to get both fists in her mouth,” Stephanie Fabjance said. “Only hours old, they could see she was a fighter.”
After her 2008 diagnosis, she wrote two cancer-themed shows: a solo performance titled “Are you There Judy? It’s Me, Cancer” and a satirical revue with her wife, “Tales of a Stage 4 Cancer.” They billed it as a riff on “everything from restrictive diets to their sex life to the questionable motives of the Big Pink industry.”
She also appeared in a comedy sketch she wrote — featured on Second City’s website — about a man engaged in a single-minded pursuit of medical marijuana.
Ms. Fabjance taught at junior highs, after-school programs, high schools, day camps and corporate meetings, according to Second City. She studied at Columbia College, iO and the Annoyance Theater.
One of her students was Tim Baltz, who has appeared on Second City’s mainstage and TV’s “Veep” and “Drunk History.”
“She loved working with kids,” Leonard said. “But she worked with adults as well and did teaching outside of Second City with special needs kids. That’s the kind of angel she was.”
He said Ms. Fabjance was able to get people to loosen up and be silly.
“When Judy walked in to a room, she radiated empathy,” Leonard said. “And if you’re teaching improvisation, there’s probably no better thing to radiate because it’s scary, and it’s rife with failure.”
In addition to her wife, daughter and mother, Ms. Fabjance is survived by her father, John Fabjance, a sister, Cathi, and brothers Gary and Tom. A celebration of her life is planned from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday on the mainstage of Second City, 1616 N. Wells St., with clips of her comedy and music.