Susan Messing will teach two workshops AND perform in the festival's closing show on Saturday, March 22nd. She's one of the top improvisational comedy teachers in the world and she's been improvising for over 25 years. There will be a lot to learn next week, but the teaching starts today. How did you get started in comedy? I was a theatre major at Northwestern University. I was a horrible actress. I started taking classes at ImprovOlympic after graduation and never had to butcher Chekov, Ibsen, and Shakespeare again.
How has comedy changed since then? The face of Comedy has evolved so much it is almost mind boggling to see where it was when we started. What was considered verboten then is banal now- improv forms from the past look static and crunchy and now it seems there is a freedom that I don't know that we thought even had the potential to exist. Thankfully I get to be in a position to evolve with the art and not sit and bemoan "the good ol days."
The evolution is so natural in this work that all of a sudden you look around and realize that improv reaches a certain level of performance sophistication that sky's the limit. It's been difficult to put improv on tv and make it look as effortless and exciting as it is live. That is a huge challenge- it still looks flat- but if that nut is cracked it'll open an entirely new can of worms of delight.
How has improv affected the rest of your life? Every fiber of my being wants to be a snotty "no but" person. Saying yes when I would have normally shot an idea down or being agreeable to something out of the box has led me to extraordinary places in my life. It helps me formulate creative ways to raise my kid that I might not have had otherwise, and we laugh a LOT. Being agreeable also led me to saying yes to the love of my life. I had known him for 25years and one day he sent me a text that said, "Stop farting around, Messing. Life is short. We should be together. And, you're perfect." So we got married a year to the day that he sent it- Uh, yes AND. By the way, men shouldn't feel bad about not coming up with that kind of line- he's an extremely good screenwriter.
Who influenced you when you were still a fan? Who inspires you now? When I first started, there was a team at ImprovOlympic (now iO) called Grime and Punishment with Dave Pasquesi, Rich Laible, Mick Napier, Tim Meadows, Dave Razowsky, and Madeline Long. Their team work and comic sensibilities blew me away. In particular, Mick Napier made me an instant fan of his work.
Everyone,and I mean EVERYONE, good, bad,and ugly, inspires me now and I have no idea how my observation of the human condition will affect my work, but it always seeps in there.
You'll be performing and teaching at the festival. What do you get out of teaching versus performing and vice versa? Teaching gives me the opportunity to share what I have learned in almost thirty years in terms of saving my students time- time that they could be pursuing joy instead of suffering trying to improvise "right." Performing gives me the opportunity to SLOW down and love exactly where I am with exactly who I'm with- I am nothing without my friends onstage and feel immensely fortunate to be able to play with them.
How did teaching become such an important part of your comedy career? I fell into teaching but once there I truly understood the mindset of the student because I distinctly remember being there. Plus, when I walk my talk I have more fun than anyone onstage and I win. When I don't, I am a hypocrite and can be as horrible as someone who fell down a mineshaft and landed on a stage. Teaching keeps me honest. I'm not going to rest on my petty laurels at this stage of the game. The day I stop growing is the day I start dying and I'm too young to die.
What is one lesson you wish every improviser could learn today? Improvisers can do anything and take the damn note. No, really. Shut up and take the note.
What makes festivals special? How important are they in the growth of a performer? Festivals are a celebration of our community. They are important because although our world is huge in comparison to what it was when I started, it is still tiny in many ways- our joy for this art brings us together and there is a celebration of trust and collaboration with improvisers that I have never seen anywhere else. It's kind of majorly beautiful and stupid and awesome.
What are you most excited about at this year's Dallas Comedy Festival? I am delighted to be invited and extremely excited to be in Dallas to soak up their enthusiasm for this art. I can't wait to play with my friend Kate Duffy, who now lives in L.A., and I miss very much. And I know I shouldn't mess with Texas, but after all, my show is called Messing With A Friend and NO sort of always means yes…