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Photograph: Lucy Hewett

Do improv for improv’s sake

Improv veteran Susan Messing told us why the art form shouldn't be viewed as a means to an end

Written by
Grace Perry

The basic rules of long-form improv are simple: Agree to whatever reality your scene partner has established, then add to it (in shorthand, “yes and”). It’s not easy but it’s simple.

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That tenet of improv is no different today than it was when Susan Messing began taking classes at iO (then ImprovOlympic) in the late ’80s. “When I started, I just didn’t want to get kicked offstage,” she says. Thirty years later, no such thing has happened to her: A co-founder of the Annoyance Theatre, a Second City Mainstage cast member from 1998 to 2000, and an improv teacher around town, Messing is a master.

For her, the question of improving Chicago comedy isn’t about getting more comedians on TV. Rather, she’s concerned with making better comedy while we’re here.

The North Center resident first taught improv classes at the Annoyance in the mid-’90s. In the early 2000s, she felt a shift in her students’ attitudes. “I started noticing people saying, ‘I have to put improv on my résumé to do X, Y and Z,’ instead of, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” This attitude contradicts what Messing describes as the thesis of improv itself: Stay in the moment and work with what you have.

Messing fears that students are so career-driven that they think they’re wasting their time in improv class. Not only is this mentality frustrating as a teacher, but according to her, it weakens the caliber of the work. “When you create out of desperation—versus [a feeling that] you must create this because you’re so passionate about it—you end up with substandard work,” she says.

Improv is just as explosive in Chicago now as it was 15 years ago. College grads move here to learn the craft, and new storefront theaters continue to open to host them. But as Messing points out, more does not mean better: “I would love if we were a little more patient with ourselves so the art could be richer—as opposed to just [having] more of it.”

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