The last month has seen another unfeasibly energetic lunge of improv activity.
Susan Messing. Nuff said.
Actually, not nuff.
I’d been in two minds about committing to the two-day Brighton workshop (mostly for financial reasons), had made a hash of booking it initially and only discovered my error just in time to rectify it. Meanwhile, everyone I knew was raving about how Messing was (a) a true force of nature; (b) unremittingly sweary; and (c) liable to tear me a new improv areshole. She was one of few universally praised by those who’d worked with her. I suddenly realised missing Messing was unlikely to be a good idea for me as an improviser. FOMO indeed.
Thankfully (and aptly) I got my act together and committed. The two days were intense – full of silliness, noisiness, anarchic disarray, daring physicality and (of course) bountiful curse words – with Susan at the eye of the storm; the gleefully insane conductor of an apocalyptic orchestra. Despite what seemed at times utterly chaotic, she clearly knew what she was doing at all points. The pace rarely let up, and the exercises (however uncomfortable, unnerving or just plain strange) often left me feeling like I’d crossed a threshold to some new, uncharted place internally. We barely did a ‘straight’ scene the whole weekend, and I think that was entirely deliberate. Straight scenes aren’t designed to test you, they’re the home you come to when the battle is over – but they shouldn’t be. The battle is never over.
Though she didn’t preface it as such, it was clear that Messing’s focus was on the improviser’s perpetual adversaries – fear, shame, lack of connection and, above all, commitment. Unlike most teachers, however, she understood it wasn’t enough to just talk about these ideas (though she did, at length – her oft-repeated mantras pummelling her lessons through even the thickest 4-ply skulls). No cerebral short-cuts on this joyride – Messing’s way was to nudge you into that dreaded awkward moment, make you recognise the tension it generated within, then say ‘fuck it’ and push through. Touch it, taste it, smell it, feel it AND fuck it – actually.
There were boat loads of exquisite moments that weekend, I couldn’t recount them all. But if there was a moment that will stay with me longest, it was the narrated lucid dream we created that, unknowingly, moved her to tears. I remember thinking – ‘Holy fuck, this shit is powerful’.
People I know (usually not improvisers) look at me oddly when I occasionally get earnest about what is effectively just making up silly shit. Besides being unapologetically passionate about this very thing, Susan (a) refused to put the process (or herself) up on a pedestal; (b) was serious enough not to let anyone slack it off; and (c) was enlightened enough to know how to make the inevitable discomfort fun. That was the Messing experience for me. It was terrifying, vivifying, embarrassing, emboldening and joyful. It reassured me that the difficulty of improvising that will always be there can always be overcome, provided you commit everything you have to it.
That, to me, is good fucking news.
I went straight from Day 2 of Messing into my first show with my new team, C3467X (we’re named for comfort, not speed). This being a Crash Pad, the crowd was naturally very improv-friendly. Nonetheless it felt like a great first show. Everyone was on cracking form, and our synchronicity was high. With the spirit of Messing freshly distilled in most of us, I’d have been really disappointed if it wasn’t.
Since then, we’ve done a couple more shows, and had plenty of practice. Most of all its been really heartening to know how committed the team is to rolling its sleeves up and getting in there – not being tediously complacent or self-aggrandising. The hard work of a few in particular has paid off, with gigs now flying at us from all directions (and apparently countries). We’ve even got the opportunity to host our own monthly night in London. I’m massively excited about it all. Can’t. Wait!
For all that, I want to get back to that place I was just after the Messing masterclass. The limitless place, where anything and everything is possible. Its actually the reason I do this, and its the only thing that keeps me interested.