Downright Upright


Notes from Susan Messing’s NY Workshop

Susan Messing did a workshop here in LA today, and while I didn’t have the foresight to take notes during her workshop, Nicclee did when she attended the NY Messing workshop and it sounds like similar material. 


Susan Messing did a workshop yesterday that was a wonderful re-introduction for me to Chicago-style improv. It also made me super sad again not to have finished the Annoyance program. Susan said everyone has a theory about how to do improv and they are just that - theories. There is no one right answer. Still, I think all improvisers would benefit from expanding their horizon and learning a different approach to improv. As someone who learned improv through UCB first, taking Chicago classes helped my play a great deal. With that in mind, I want to share some (a lot of) notes I jotted down from Susan’s workshop. Feel free to take them, use them, share them, or discard them. After all, there’s no one right way to do comedy.

- Improv is dealing with what is right in front of you.

- Improv scenes show us a slice of life or the day the shit hits the fan. 

- Your shit (or deal) is in the first 3 seconds of the scene. Whatever you do is your choice. Whatever you do is enough. Don’t drop it. Do it more than once. A choice for your body is much better than anything you can invent verbally. It’s a chance for your partner to label your behavior and then you can justify it. 

- The first 3 seconds of a scene is your promise to the audience to tell them who you are as a character. Don’t be too polite at the top of a scene. We each get our own shit (or deal). The person to speak first doesn’t tell us the thesis of the scene and win.

- Make a weird behavior truthful. Back it up with specificity. The more you do a behavior, the more we know who your character is and the stronger your character is.

- Saying Yes is not enough. The Ands get you off.

- You can control your words on stage. If you tend to talk a lot, try doing scenes where you are more silent. You can control pitch, tone and energy. Adjust your posture on the backline to be ready to jump out and not look like you’re the asshole waiting for the scene going on to be over.

- Our integrity on stage is different from our integrity offstage. You’re only limited by your lack of imagination and fear of looking stupid. Don’t be afraid to get as far away from yourself as possible on stage. Try on people you’ve never wanted to be and people you’ve always wanted to be. Don’t limit yourself with your own restrictions.

- If your improv feels the same, it’s because you keep doing the same thing hoping for a different result. Change your body. Be a character. If you still feel like yourself on stage, push it more. If it feels like a boinking accident, pull it back so someone can play with you. If you don’t like doing something, do it more. If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.

- The funny comes out of commitment and choice. Jokes can only be heightened by funnier jokes. 

- If the only thing you get to own is your body on stage, own it. If you initiate with a particular posture, don’t drop it or change it just because your partner labels you or the environment as something that you don’t think fits your initiation. Ex: If you crook your body and hunch over just as your partner identifies you as a lawyer, don’t change your posture to stand upright. Stick with your original choice. Exploit your body. Let your body talk for you. You can be a hunched lawyer. If you make a characteristic choice for yourself at the top, you can take that character anywhere and you won’t be thrown off by your partner’s verbal initiation.

- Specificity kills ambiguity. Ambiguity doesn’t create specificity. Every detail is a chance to know more about your character. Revisit every specificity during the scene. Every prop means something to your character and is a chance to tell us more about your character by the way they use the prop.

- Game is anything you do more than once. You can have multiple games: for yourself, between you and the world, for your friend, for your enemy, etc. Why can we do multiple things at once in life, but only one thing at a time on stage? Do everything for a reason. Find out why you’re doing something in a scene. Explore.

- If you play with someone you don’t get, try on their shit. Match their energy. You can always adjust your energy to go bigger or more grounded in a scene.

- Don’t talk yourself into feeling something in a scene. If you can see it, smell it, touch it, taste it, you have something to work with. Everything you do or say is a clue about your character. 

- In life, we are informed by and make assumptions about who people are based on their physicality all the time. Don’t forget this physical intelligence in scenes. Don’t look for “something better” in the scene. Be inspired by physicality. Don’t invent. 

- Upstage is environmental; downstage is important and where the action happens. 

- Conflict is not agreement. 

- When introducing an object in a scene, don’t make people drop their shit to guess what it is. Find a way to define the object or what you’re doing if it’s important to your character. 

- Develop your peripheral vision. Know what’s going on on stage around you at all times. 

- If there is an idea in your head, throw it out there. Don’t regret moves you could’ve made later. 

- Know your audience. Know what content is appropriate for when and whom you’re performing. The audience needs to feel comfortable in order to laugh.

I think my favorite note is that if you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole. And it’s improv, so have fun!