Messing with Austin

This weekend I took two improv workshops back-to-back, both with big wigs from Chicago. I showed up to The New Movement Theater (my first time stepping foot inside it) hungover from a whisky adventure the night before.

So here is my attempt, however meager, to recall what I learned from Susan Messing & Rachael Mason…

1. Susan Messing

SusanMessing_web“Susan Messing” is a name I’ve heard many times since I started improvising. But I never knew why. Before I showed up at her workshop on Saturday—aptly titled “Back on the Joy Ride”—I didn’t know her resume or what she looked like. She could’ve been 28 or 68 and I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Turns out she looks exactly like my junior high speech teacher. And, as she informed us midway through the workshop, she touts a 36DD bra. She looks like what I imagine Lisa Loeb’s sassy aunt would look like.

Messing has almost three decades of experience in Chicago and studied/played with many of the greats—Del Close, Mick Napier, lalalala.

(On a sidenote: Improv is a surprisingly young art form, having only been formalized and codified in the last 50-60 years or so. Which means we young kiddos have a limited Hall of Fame to reference. We hear and discuss the same names over and over—the UCB four, Charna, Del, Mick, Messing, etc. I’m looking forward to being around long enough to see a new generation of names make their mark.) 

Messing came out guns blazing. There was no soft and subtle introduction, no listing of her bona fides. It was a 150mph out of the gate. Which was probably good for my shy, hungover brain; she electrocuted it awake.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note, as hundreds before me have: Susan Messing curses a lot. Like, a lot a lot. In addition to the standard “fucks” and “shits,” there was a liberal sprinkling of the word “rape,” which she informed us meant its third definition: to plunder, to seize—e.g., “Rape the stage.”

Calling Messing’s two hours a “workshop” was misleading, but I didn’t mind. There were probably 35-40 people in the room, which meant the 2-3 exercises she had us do were gigantic group exercises. This wasn’t about getting diagnostic attention from Messing; it was about being in Messing’s orbit.

It was a lecture. But a fascinating one to watch.

As Messing’s monologue—which was frenetic, funny, and slippery—continued, I found myself wondering how this whirling dervish could contain herself within an improv scene. I mean, she’s got a reputation as an excellent improviser, so there’s no question she can contain this deep well of energy, but how? I couldn’t imagine this woman, who was dropping f-bombs like she was going for a world record, composing herself for a still, silent character. I bet she plays a lot of pirates and old-timey prostitutes.

So what did I learn?

I’m not sure. It was like drinking from a fire hose. She wasn’t interested in a clear agenda for her workshop. (Who can blame her? She’s probably done this a thousand times before; she has to keep it interesting for herself.)

I suppose I learned that passion for improv can last for three decades, which is reassuring. I learned that, when improvising, there is nothing except what’s right in front of you right now. I didn’t leave the workshop with any tangible techniques to play with at my next show (which happened to be that very night). I’m certain that if I were in a six-week course with Messing, with maybe only a dozen other students, that I’d get plenty of specifics. But this was about watching the Messing show, not upping my specific game. I was totally OK with that.

Which is why I was so glad the second workshop was with…

2. Rachael Mason

thumb_mason_rachael2If I had only a vague notion about Susan Messing before Saturday afternoon, I certainly didn’t know anything about Rachael Mason—except that she looks like an amalgam of three different women I had wild crushes on during college.

But Mason didn’t let my ignorance last long; she informed us (a much smaller number, about 12 improvisers) at the top of her class that not only is she the director of Advanced Improvisation at The Second City in Chicago, but that this is a “big deal.” And she told us she knows “what she’s talking about.”

I have to admit this annoyed me. I have an overdeveloped anti-authoritarian gland: I’m happy to hero worship and respect authority, but only if it doesn’t explicitly describe itself as such. When a teacher or boss or coach boasts about his/her resume, or when they name-drop right off the bat, part of me gets defensive. My brain crosses its arms, leans back in its brain chair, and thinks to itself, “Oh yeah? I bet you’re not hot shit. Prove to me how bad-ass you are, and then I’ll disagree with you anyway.”

So those first ten minutes of Mason’s workshops had my guard up, big time.

(Sidenote: I get defensive about Austin as a city, and its improv community in particular. When someone sings the praises of Chicago or New York, especially if they do it in a superior manner, I think to myself, “Well then fucking leave Austin, already.”

I compare it to pizza. As in, “Oh my gosh, nobody makes pizza like they do in New York. New York pizza is best in the world.” People do the same thing with Mexican food here in Texas, or with seafood in San Francisco/Seattle. Hey, assholes, guess what? There is pizza in Omaha, Nebraska, just as good as any in NYC. And you know why they can make excellent, authentic Mexican food in Minnesota? Because there are Mexican people there! Chinese food in Atlanta? You betchya!

Similarly, just because improv saw its official birth in Chicago 60 years ago, or whatever—that doesn’t mean the knowledge hasn’t spread across the globe. It doesn’t mean Chicago is the only place innovating the art form. In fact, one could argue that some of the most interesting work is happening elsewhere.

I know Chicago is bad-ass, and I secretly plan to move there in the next few years. But I swear to you, dear readers, that I will never pretend as if Chicago has something that plenty of other cities don’t, improv-wise.)

OK, so yes, there I am, arms folded and sneer curling my upper lip. But she slowly won me over. For starters, she does know what she’s talking about. Then she did a great self-depricating joke about how she’s the “poor man’s Susan Messing.” And there’s something accurate about that description, because while Mason doesn’t have Messing’s manic energy, she has plenty of passion for improv pouring out of her. She loves this stuff, and it’s obvious.

Because Mason’s workshop was smaller, we were more active participants. In fact, we spent 80% of our time onstage doing exercises. Specifically we were working on how to start scenes, and Mason gave us a great series of drills—most of which focused on establishing the relationship within the first three lines without ham-fisting the exposition in.

Mason also sang the praises of taking your time, especially early in a scene, so that your responses would be sharper, smarter, and lend your scene partner’s line more weight.

Here’s a fantastic example she provided:

Mason asked one of the students to give her, Mason, a character name, and to inform this character that the Condo Owner’s Association wants her, Mason, to cut her hedges.

Student: “Carol, the Condo Owner’s Association called, and they want you to trim your hedges.”

Mason pauses a moment—maybe 4-5 full seconds—and then replies, “Damnit, Steve, I’m not going to go out with you.”

See what she did there?

Instead of responding instantly and talking about these (invisible) hedges she needs to trim—which would likely lead the scene toward a discussion of (invisible) hedges and, more woefully, not tell us much of anything about these two people’s relationship—Mason took time to think of a line that would define how she felt about this person. Mason’s character saw the hedge-cutting request as an excuse by a sycophant to come talk to her, maybe to ask her out on a date; so Mason’s character blurted out a date rejection that (a) told us how these two knew each other, and (b) how she felt about him.


Mandinka use lesson!

I left this workshop with a small handful of specific warm-ups that I put into effect later on Saturday night as Mia and I prepared for a Mandinka show at The Institution Theater. It helped. Our show, which was very passable, had a fantastic opening that was slow, deliberate, and filled with meaningful silence. For us two, who can often come into a scene shot out of a canon, it was a lovely change of pace.

So to summarize: These two Chicago broads—and yes, I think they might really appreciate the description of “broads” (at least Messing would)—brought a boatload of inspiration and know-how. I’m glad I dragged my blurry eyes and fuzzy  brain to the workshops. They were worth every penny.

Turns out, they do make good improv in Chicago. Who knew?


  1. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on August 5, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I got to do the HOA-hedge thing in the Sunday workshop, as well. A definite drink-from-the-fire-hose experience. I talked to one fellow participant who didn’t really enjoy it for its lack of focus, but I personally didn’t mind hearing their bits of wisdom over and over.

    (Also it’s Rachael, with an A in there.)

  2. jonbolden on August 6, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Not that it really matters, but I was underwhelmed by the “master class” & the show, but I did really enjoy meeting and hearing them talk so passionately about improv.

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