Jan. 11 2017 11:53 AM

Comedy trio branches out to host national comedians, offer workshops

Comedy Coven (left to right: Emily Syrja, Tricia Chamberlain and Stephanie Onderchanin) hosts a monthly comedy show at the Robin Theatre. This month, the group also hosts a national comedian and kicks off a comedy skills workshop.
Photo by Marites Grace

When local comedian Emily Syrja didn’t see the opportunities she wanted in the local comedy scene, she decided to create her own. Syrja started hosting pop-up comedy shows at her house to create a venue for comics, especially female comics, who were struggling to find a place in the local open mic scene.

“When I started inviting people to my house shows, it was because I wasn’t getting booked,” Syrja said. “I wanted to know if there were other women not getting booked. I wanted to set up a structure that would give us some space.”

Two years later, those house shows have evolved into Comedy Coven, a trio of female comedians who host a monthly comedy show at the Robin Theatre. Syrja, 26, Tricia Chamberlain, 29, and Stephanie Onderchanin, 25, present a new show each month, featuring a mix of local and regional standup acts, sketch comedy and improv. This month, the trio kicks off two new ventures: Comedy Coven Presents, a monthly showcase for national comedians, and a Comedy Skills Workshop.

In late 2014, Syrja and Onderchanin had already been working together on a blog but were phasing it out to focus on standup comedy. The duo was already frustrated with the local open mic scene.

“We didn’t have control. You had to beg for stage time,” Onderchanin said.

“And you’re expected to be very grateful for stage time in a way that was kind of patronizing,” Syrja added.

There seemed to be no encouragement to be creative or experiment, so Onderchanin and Syrja decided to build a show of their own. The duo met Tricia Chamberlain at an open mic night at the Green Door.

“I was very intimidated by Stephanie and Emily,” Chamberlain said. “I was like, ‘Oh, these are the cool girls of comedy.’ They were super cool and I was frickin’ scared.”

Through a mutual friend, they ended up having dinner together. The trio, in Syrja’s words, started “scheming together almost immediately.” The group hosted its first popup show at Syrja’s house in February 2015.

“We did stuff at Emily’s house, and then we did shows where I work, the Allen Market Place,” Onderchanin said. “It worked, but it wasn’t a perfect fit. It’s basically a warehouse.”

In the summer of 2015, a friend told them about a new venue opening in REO Town. They connected with Dylan Rogers and Jeana-Dee Allen, the husband-and-wife team who were turning a 1917 storefront into an Art Deco-influenced theater. Comedy Coven hosted its first show in the Robin Theatre in August, shortly after it opened.

“We were one of the first acts to come into the Robin Theatre,” Chamberlain said.

They’ve been with the Robin ever since.

The Coven found that Rogers and Allan understood them better than a more conventional comedy booker or promoter would.

“They’re artists, and we’re artists too,” Syrja said. “I think our approach to comedy is pretty unconventional, and their approach to booking and running a theater is unconventional.”

The trio’s monthly show regularly sells out the 90-seat Robin Theatre. The intimacy of the small theater space is a huge asset for Comedy Coven, which highly values audience interaction.

“The comedy climate is changing. You can access anything you want to see on the Internet,” Chamberlain said. “That’s what makes our show different. When someone takes the microphone at our show, we want the audience and the comedian to have a real connection. Instead of staying home and watching YouTube videos, this is a real thing they can be a part of.”

“Because you can get anything on demand, the content you are consuming is customized to you,” Onderchanin added. “Our audience doesn’t like the bland, comedy club-style stuff. They want people who are weird and have different viewpoints.”

In their standup comedy and their sketches, the ladies of Comedy Coven don’t shy away from difficult topics.

“There are so many of us who experience mental illness or abuse or trauma, and so many of us are afraid to talk about that kind of stuff,” Chamberlain said. “We create this barrier between each other, and those barriers are responsible for so many of the shitty things in society.”

The trio hopes that addressing topics like mental illness through comedy helps their audience deal with traumatic experiences.

“To have a platform to say ‘I’m not afraid to tell you I’ve gone through this’ is hopefully allowing people to see that they’re not the only person this has happened to,” Chamberlain said. “I have anxiety or bipolar disorder, and this is OK, because other people have it. If we didn’t have the stigma associated with those labels, we could talk with each other and find common ground and find support in our struggles.”

This month, the group is leveraging the popularity of its show to launch a monthly showcase for national comedians.

“What we’ve been trying to do for a while, and we’re finally doing it, is branching out to create Comedy Coven Presents and bring in national acts that are funny and that people in Lansing will love,” Chamberlain said.

The series kicks off Sunday at Mac’s Bar with Jamie Loftus, a Boston-based comedian and writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Paste and Playboy Magazine. Next month, the series continues at the Robin Theatre with Krish Moran, a self-described “socially conscious Indian standup comedian.”

“One thing that’s made our show successful is that we’re able to help people discover something,” Syrja said. “We have a really supportive audience, and we have a good sense of what is accessible to them and what they like.”

The group also launches its first Comedy Skills Workshop next week. The six-week program covers topics like comedy writing, promotion and self-confidence.

“This is something I wanted to do as soon as our show started taking off,” Syrja said. “I want to see the pool of comedians in Lansing get more diverse — not just in terms of demographics, but in style and formats. I want to see a really vivid scene.”

The goal, Syrja explained, is to create an entry point for aspiring comedians who are intimidated by the open mic process.

“The way it’s set up now, you have to know somebody to get into comedy,” she said. “We have an audience that feels like they know us, and I’m happy to be that gateway.”

Comedy Coven Presents: Jamie Loftus

8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15
$10 Mac’s Bar 2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
(517) 484-6795, macsbar. com

Comedy Coven XXII: Witchdrawal

8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17
$7 adv./$10 at the door (if available)
The Robin Theatre
1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing therobintheatre.com

Comedy Skills Workshop

Jan. 19-Feb. 23
6:30-8 p.m. Thursday
$5-10 suggested donation
Allen Neighborhood Center
1611 E. Kalamazoo St., Lansing
comedycoven.com/classescomedycoven.com