Geeking Out with…Susan Messing

This interview was originally posted on Pam Victor’s Interview blog series, “Geeking Out with…”, and is being re-blogged here with Pam’s permission.

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If you could use three words to describe Susan Messing, what would they be?

“Loving, fearless, talented.”  -Tim Meadows (Saturday Night Live, Uncle’s Brother)

“Well, it will be hard to sum up my friend Susan in 3 words… I’ll try but I will make it 6 with adjectives: Fiercely Loyal, Endlessly Generous,  Beautifully Imaginative.” -Kate Duffy (iO Theater, The Second City)

“Lovely, vulgar, original.” -TJ Jagodowski (TJ and Dave)

“Brilliant, caring, fearless.” -Mark Sutton (BASSPROV)

“Wild, silly, playful and loving.” – Jet Eveleth (iO Theater)

“Ebullient, welcoming, sincere, and if I had one more – fearless.” – Angela V. Shelton (Frangela)

“Mama Chicago Improv” – Jonathan Pitts (Executive Director, Chicago Improv Festival Productions)

Jonathan continues, “She hates when I say that, but after Joyce Sloane (the original Mama Chicago Improv) passed away, I say the crown passed to Susan. She’s one of the few people who is beloved by every improv theatre and training center in Chicago.”

Most likely, if I continued to poll her friends and colleagues, I would hear piles and piles of more love, respect, and admiration for all that is Susan Messing. But I’ll stop myself from polling further because I fear Susan might tell me to relax my crack and stop being so fucking OCD about collecting bullshit quotes about her. (Though I do hope she smiles secretly into her coffee in private pleasure after reading them.) As she said to me after listening to me rub raw my improv musings, “There’s just too many cool things to rape, dear goodness, my poor mommy.” Be still my heart – that woman is speakin’ my language. As our interview progressed, I quickly could see why her peers love and respect her so much. Yes, she is all of the above, and much, much more. Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparable Susan Messing!

Susan Messing has been improvising in Chicago for well over two decades, and was adorned the title of “Funniest Woman in Chicago” by Chicago Magazine. Susan has performed, taught and/or directed at all the major theaters including The Second CityiO Theater and The Annoyance Theatre. One of the founding members of The Annoyance Theatre, Susan performed as Cindy in their break out hit The Real Live Brady Bunch as well as adapted and directed the critically acclaimed What Every Girl Should Know… An Ode to Judy Blume, plus something like a wadzillion other shows. She currently performs weekly at The Annoyance in Messing with a Friend, and monthly at The Second City with her three-woman show The Playboys. Susan also is an adjunct professor for  DePaul University’s Theatre School, and The University of Chicago. She continues to teach at The Annoyance, occasionally at Second City and iO, and will be teaching at Steppenwolf Theatre this summer as well.

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PAM VICTOR: Tell me about the first seed of improv that was planted in your heart.

SUSAN MESSING: I was at Northwestern- sophomore year- and I auditioned for their comedy show, The Meow Show. The producer that year was some English guy named Dan Patterson – ended up being the Whose Line is it Anyway? founder. Whatever. I sucked. Then junior year, there was some sort of audition for an improv group in Chicago at a place called ImprovOlympic. Again, I wasn’t cast. But when I graduated with a B.S. (bullshit) in Theatre, and I was still a terrible actress, my thoughts came around again to that place and I started taking classes there. [That was] 1986. The first three guys I met were Rich Laible, Dave Razowsky, and Mick Napier. My life kind of changed forever.

PAM: It seems like that time, that era, in Chicago was a golden time. I mean, there were so many people who just came together and…stuck.

SUSAN: Yup. Looking back, it was incredible. These people now run comedy. Seriously. However, at the time, we were just fucking around, trying to be the best performers we could be, getting fucked up, and laughing. Pretty incredible in retrospect. I wrote incredible twice. So it must have been pretty great.

PAM: LOL!

SUSAN: And we had no idea how much our work would blow up. We were just hanging out, making up fun shit. Sometimes it makes me sad that people have quite the agenda now in their work. I always felt that having more fun than anyone made great work happen with great results. But then again, it was a different time.

PAM: Is there even a space in Chicago these days for people who just want to have fun and make stuff up?

SUSAN: Yes. I don’t care what peoples’ reasoning is for doing it. If they just want to be famous, that’s nice, but know that you can also get famous for killing a busload of kids. Know that I don’t recommend that.

PAM: Hahahaha. Exactly.

SUSAN: There is always a space for doing anything, including this work, primarily for joy. Sure. Frankly, I think it makes the ride much easier.

PAM: I do improv because I have to or I would wither on the vine. Why do you do improv?

SUSAN: It’s my favorite way to create and I get to play. Simple. And I have brilliant friends and I get to make up shit with them and then it’s over. And then I get to do it again. Forever.

PAM: What a blessing. Would you consider Mick Napier to be the first real guiding force for your development as an improviser?

SUSAN: Well, Charna [Halpern] was my first teacher and then John Harrizal, Del – and Mick was my first coach and one of my first teachers. I think Mick’s influence on me was his style of comedy. It made so much sense to me, twisted, perverse, uncensored…

All of my teachers, including Don DePollo, Michael Gellman, John Michalski, Cary Goldenberg, had some sort of influence on me, but Mick’s comic sensibilities spoke to me. And of course, I was completely influenced by the brilliant talent of my friends. I have always just felt lucky not to get kicked offstage. I think I’ll always feel that way.

PAM: So which friends are you referring to from back then?

SUSAN: Shit. They’re all great. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m dropping names. Look at iO, The Annoyance and Second City and mix and match from 1986 – present. Seriously. I’ve either played with them, cried with them, partied with them, slept with them…

PAM: Ha. Ok. What improv philosophies do you feel you learned from Mick Napier that continue to serve you well today?

SUSAN: The best way to take care of your partner is to take care of yourself so they don’t have to worry about you. The first three seconds of the scene is your promise to the audience of WHO you will be. You don’t know what the scene is until the fucker’s over. That if you’re onstage you belong there…

And he’s had such a sense of play and whimsy in this shit that I couldn’t help but agree with it all. And it works.

I love iO and Second City too…However, I think through time we’ve turned this shit into rocket science and that can get to be too much. Improv is no longer your bastard cousin of creation. It’s everywhere and used for all sorts of creative shit, and it’s pretty amazing at how legit it’s become in the artistic world. I never thought that today I’d be teaching and performing all over the place, including universities. Odd.

Charna spoke to the CERN people – the fancy particle physicists – I mean what the fuck, right???

PAM: Wow. One of my mentors, Will Luera, is what I consider to be an improv physicist, so actually that makes perfect sense to me. Plus – and forgive me if this is too woo-woo for you – I actually think the lessons from improv are all the very best lessons for living a good life.

SUSAN: Absolutely.

PAM: So it is a relief to me that smart people are looking to improv for guidance.

…To continue reading the entire interview, visit Geeking Out with…Susan Messing.

““Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on her website.”

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