“You’re late to my vagina”: Intensive Long Form with Susan Messing and Rachael Mason

This shit is getting real, people! Ok, I have so much to write about, and so little time to write. As I start right now, it is 11pm and, after 10 hours of classes today, I have looked at my notes and can see that there is a good 3 hours writing ahead of me. Which I must complete as I’ve at least another 7 hours of class every day this week as well as evening obligations to go and see shows. Oh yes, this is a holiday, and one where the tour guide is certainly keeping me busy.

Last night I went out and did my first stand up gig here in America. I will blog about that too when I’ve a moment, however, for now you will have to make do with the knowledge that I did ok. I got to bed at 1am, and was up nice and sprightly, at 7 this morning. For those that know my ritual, of course I had Earl Grey and eggs on toast, this is the food of kings, people, the food of kings.

The cycle to Second City was a little rushed. I knew I’d left it a little late to get to the induction on time, but what is an induction anyway, it is really just someone trying to make sure that the stupidest person in the room isn’t a dick. It is therefore futile, as the stupidest person in the room will always be a dick; as someone who has been a dick in the past and will probably be one in the future again, I relish my dickishness. People worry too much. And as they say, only the good die young, so clearly it is not just the dicks who don’t know locations of the fire exits.

I arrived slightly sweaty, the weather already pretty hot. I was not the last to arrive, some people even managed to arrive late to the class itself, impressive as that made them a full hour late. Or maybe they also didn’t care for inductions. Ha, I like them already. Then onto class.

My first impression of Susan Messing is one of someone who is very much larger than life. As I’d arrived in the building, she was the first person to wave and say hi, and she welcomed us to her classroom with a “welcome to my vagina”. Or she would have, were she not forbidden for legal reasons, which gave the the opportunity to explain this at length and use the word vagina several more times. What she particularly didn’t like though, was people being late to her vagina. Which is fair enough.

Susan Messing is probably the best known Chicago based improv teacher in Britain. Over here in Chicago, she is regarded with a certain degree of awe. She has history with all the schools, teaching and performing shows everywhere, and I am hugely lucky to be getting her for 8 weeks at the iO too. Here at Second City, I was to get a phenomenal introduction into the scary reality that is Susan Messing. I was to get, and I still have another 4 days of it. And it all made sense.

“Your slightest bitch is my command”
The week’s day’s will be split into two, one half taught by Susan, the other by Rachel Mason. I will come to her later, she is another phenomenal teacher, and very complementary to what we are being taught by Susan. Susan’s approach is one of concentrating on Character, Environment and Teamwork. Rachel is more about form and how the Character relates to the scene. I think.

Susan’s Nuggets
Everything you do and say is a clue. The physicality informs – yours informs you and your partner, theirs informs then and you. The audience will make their own opinion of what is going on.
Choose a physicality, then ask why the physicality. The physicality informs the attitude. Each attitude may have a different reason why.
Specificity helps.
Follow your physical, your body has its own physical intelligence, and you follow that to find the reality of the situation.

We respond to what is in front of us right now. It is the physical that we are responding to.

The first time you do something, that is an initiation. The second time it is a game.

Take care of yourself on stage.

The funny will rise from the commitment and recommitment to our choices.

“smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it, fuck it” – We are in the moment. This is what we must do.

We are only limited by our lack of imagination and out failure to commit

Comedy comes from our bodies. Can you come up with an exercise that experiment’s with and encourages creative physicality? Maybe some of the mime workshop stuff.

We go on stage to share someone else’s energy. No one can take you away from you, and specific physicality saves you.

Making sure that were all still connected, we crawled over one another. We were to go where we were uncomfortable and make it more so. I ended up burying my face in som terrible places. This was an exercise in stretching out and pushing our own boundaries.
It is important to go to the place where we are least comfortable and to make ourselves more so, which may be just by staying in the same place.

Susan’s Nuggets
If I have fun, then the audience has fun. Fun, heightened, pulls out the funny.

A look directed at someone will say more than anything said.

Just enjoy yourself on stage. Look after you, protect the freak – enjoy it, enjoy it, enjoy it.

The 3 shit things to see on stage: I’m no good, the audience is not good, this thing we’re doing is no good.

The best way to take care of my partner is not to drop my shit!

Remember, in play there is no right. Children make up the rules as they go along, do not be constrained.

After the initiation, everything else in improv should be a reaction. That reaction can be Sympathise, Empathise, or Rationalise.

When someone comments on you, they are interpreting your physicality. That is their gift to you. “Ah, so that is why I was doing that / standing in that way”

Find ways to be different to yourself when on stage. Clothes, accent, a character, lead with a different part of the body. Change the physicality, and then inhabit it. Think about where my chest face is looking. What is my intention?

Don’t call someone by their real name. This doesn’t help their character. Call them by what you think the character they are portraying would be called. The more you call someone by their scene name, the more they are able to become that.

Sitting down, it is important to keep your shit. Never drop your shit. Your shit is yours, defend your shit, keep it fresh.

Patterns titillate the audience. They see them, we see them. Recognise the patterns.
Thus, the first time something happens, that is an initiation. The second time, it is a pattern, it is a game.

When you are waiting to come on stage, the audience are still watching you. Never be “waiting”, be anticipating, be attentive, lean in, have your body at the ready so that at any moment you can come on stage and support your team. This is both for the audience, who will see the excitement, and for you, as your physicality creates it’s own eagerness to join the party and the fun on stage.

When interpreting physicality, add to what exists. Work with what you’ve got. What do you see, what do you interpret it to mean, why is it happening, what is the thing going on in front of you all about? Put people into a world.

Now we want to know why we see x, y, and z.

Talking about the past or future is ok – but only if we have something here in the present to show it off. I’m missing an arm? Last week I was at the zoo and a polar bear ate it.

When you play in a world, it is easier to understand and more fascinating to watch if the spacework is good. The audience loves to recognise what is going on, so you are giving them a puzzle that they can work out and they will love you for it. The object work is the substance of this world they are watching.

Detail, detail, detail. Remember the details through the scenes, and be specific. It is both more interesting and easier to remember.

5 people walking around the room normally. What are they leading with? How are they walking?
Get everyone to change their physicality, to lead with something else and walk and inhabit it.
Then, sit in the new physicality. Susan then inerviewed us about who we are ourselves, to one another, what we do, etc.
There were three scenes, one was a Subway sandwich shop located in the NYC subway with it’s own rat fight club and illegal betting syndicate; the next was a guy who had had a stroke after being rejected by one of the girls in an enclosed neighbourhood; the final one was a drug experiment on the team that was going horribly wrong, with lot’s of coercion and bullying. Very funny!

We then did some spacework, making a snack. Plenty of detail in the spacework.

Susan’s Nuggets
The more I hang out with the person in my head, the more I understand them. They are the basis for all the different characters.

We did more scenes. Susan asked us what we are doing, why we are doing it. The interesting thing is in the discovery process, and necessity is the mother of invention. Why are we doing that thing? The more we discover, the more we want to know why.

Susan’s Nuggets
Maturity in an improviser it when you eventually reach the stage that you become the improviser that you want to be and improvise the scenes you want to improvise. Because the key in all of this it to enjoy being on stage, have fun and play.


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