Alum spotlight: Amita Rao (BA ’20) & Chelsea Matkins (BFA ’21)

screenshot of gag reflex instagram feed

Amita Rao (BA in Theatre, 2020)
Chelsea Matkins (BFA in Theatre with a concentration in Performance, 2021)

Birdwatching, gaslighting boyfriends, spitting on your roommate’s food to claim it — just a few of the topics you’ll find Chelsea Matkins and Amita Rao (along with the rest of their roommates) tackling on Chelsea’s TikTok page. The comedy duo live in Chicago and are building a name for themselves in the local scene. They are both represented by G&J Talent and perform together under the name Gag Reflex.

The two met when they were at VCUarts Theatre and remember their early days fondly on the VCU Improv team, Running AMok. Chelsea says, “The second we got on the team, I remember going up to Amita and being like ‘You realize we got something, right?’” 

Amita laughs, “This was before I felt close to Chelsea, so I didn’t see it the same way she did. She had a lot of foresight though, ‘cause she was right.” 

Amita in Sense and Sensibility at VCU, Photo by Aaron Sutten

This pair proceeded to do all the improv and sketch comedy they could find at VCU—and created more. In a muddled timeline they have trouble parsing through today (“We were doing improv ALL the time”), they describe their participation in a slew of improv groups while attending VCU. Along with Running AMok, they were members of Blue Collard Greens (a sketch group that performed monthly at TheatreLAB), and at the same(-ish) time, both Gag Reflex and Toxic Shock were added to their roster. 

Chelsea started Gag Reflex with fellow students and friends, Abbey Kincheloe (BFA ’20) and Anna Leonard (BA ’19), the year before Amita was at VCU. The group grew in popularity through student performances at SALT’s monthly Variety Show called No Shame — many recent alums are familiar but if you’re not, here’s a 2020 article from the Commonwealth Times. In their junior year, Chelsea brought Amita on, and the two kept Gag Reflex going after Abbey and Anna graduated and moved to pursue their own crafts in Atlanta. 

The original Toxic Shock members with Head of Improv Elizabeth Byland. counter clockwise from bottom right (Chelsea, EB, Scout Smith, Lydia Hynes, Amita, Marisa Rigot)

Toxic Shock also grew out of No Shame, where Chelsea and Amita performed with Lydia Hynes (BFA ‘20) under the name Not Necessarily. When they asked our Head of Improv, Elizabeth Byland (“EB” to us in the department), to coach them, EB suggested adding a couple more members and creating an official VCU team. Their friends Marisa Rigot (BA ’21) and Scout Smith (BFA ’20) joined, and Toxic Shock was created. The all-femme VCU team is still going strong at VCU and is now directed by Marisa herself. 

Chelsea and Amita gush about their time with EB here at VCU. Chelsea says, “EB is so bashful about it … but she absolutely changed our lives. Talk about a teacher having lasting effects, like truly, I will thank her until the day I die.”

Amita adds, “The amount of people who have asked where we trained in Chicago… I mean, people think we went to Second City or something, but no, we just had EB for years and she’s the best improv coach you could ever have.” 

Chelsea at SALT’s No Shame

Their comedic dynamic really took off when they became roommates in Richmond during the pandemic. Chelsea says, “When we all got locked inside, Amita and I lived together at that point and started to do improv in our living room.” They started filming content for TikTok and gaining followers, honing in on a “relatable roommate banter” that people seemed to gravitate toward. Often compared to Broad City‘s Abbi and Illana or New Girl’s Nick and Schmidt, Chelsea and Amita say the vast majority of their videos come from genuine conversations. Chelsea says, “We escalate the bit into absurdity…but at the heart of it, it’s just something we would say in a conversation.” Their first TikTok that went “viral” was an offbeat video made in Richmond about getting back at a gaslighting ex. The video quickly reached 300k views, which was a hefty benchmark for the duo at the time, but now pales in comparison to their reach.

After moving to Chicago, they posted their first video that hit 1 million views in November of 2021, and shortly after, posted another that garnered more than 30 million views! Both videos show a random conversation that might come up with friends—but of course with the magic blend of subtle looks between people in the scene, the perfect pauses between dialogue, and camera work that make the moment absurd and hilarious while looking effortless. They’ve continued the trend with videos featuring a varying cast of characters—we have to mention two more theatre alums (and their additional real-life roommates) Hank Ware (BA ’21) and Celeste Taica (BFA ’20) who are regulars on the feed. Brands began to reach out to the duo on social media following the popularity of these videos, and they’ve since done paid partnerships with Target, as well as Tinder, whom Chelsea has been working with as a content creator. 

The summer of 2021, Amita and Chelsea were featured in video promos for VCU We’re back!

Their presence in Chicago has been organically growing. People in the comedy community recognize them from TikTok, and their social presence has helped them get gigs. “It’s kind of a legitimacy check,” says Amita. Their first week in Chicago, tryouts for House Improv teams were happening at The Annoyance, a long standing comedy theater that boasts alumni like Jason Sudekis and Aidy Bryant. They made a team and got their foot in the door. Only a few months later, Gag Reflex was asked to put up a solo show after a cancellation left the theater in a tight spot. They ended up selling out the show (with a 30+ waitlist), and when asked to come back the following week, Annoyance Founder/Artistic Director Mick Napier and Producer Jennifer Estlin invited their now-agents to come watch. The most crucial advice they’d offer to current students is to “create your own projects” as they attribute that to the majority of their success.  

Anyone in Chicago: Gag Reflex starts a regular slot at The Annoyance in January 2023 — Saturday nights at 10:00pm!

Written by Sarah Moore (Department Marketing & PR Coordinator) for the November 2022 Theatre Alumni newsletter