On asking friends what Susan was like as a teacher they would often attempt an impression of her, including catchphrases and a lot of swearing, which was a little intimidating. When I finally met her – in a workshop weekend in London – I found her to be utterly refreshing. She immediately cut through all of the bullshit, a truth-sayer who would challenge you hard and make you feel totally secure at the same time. She focused on the self and the team as completely symbiotic creatures in improv, which now seems obvious. I met her again in Nottingham where I was performing in Project2 and she was doing Messing with a Friend. We chatted in the pub and she invited me to play in Messing with a Friend in Chicago (which it took me two years to follow up on). It was incredible and she is one of the best scene partners I have ever had.
Advice I use most from Susan Messing:
“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole”.
The Maydays invited Rich and Rebecca Sohn over from the Annoyance Theatre, Chicago. They immediately got to work on the Maydays and after a week of work, our shows were much stronger. Our intimacy and trust with one-another as performers grew and we remembered to take it seriously, but also, not at all seriously. We took more risks and noticed more what the dynamic was on stage. Rebecca struck me as a strong and hilarious woman; seeing what she is up to in her comedy life is a constant and useful kick in the ass for me professionally.
Exercise I love the most from Rebecca Sohn (Annoyance):
Touching noses and foreheads with your scene partner throughout a whole scene and not breaking eye contact.
Friends talked a lot about Jill and I was excited to do a class with her. I had heard that she was fun and playful. I booked on a solo improv workshop. I have and had no desire to do a solo improv show, but I coach a handful and I was working on a solo scripted piece. I was the asshole in the room and one of my first questions was “how do you do solo improv and not come across as smug?”. It was a genuine question as I think solo improv has a lot of fundamental flaws (ask me in the pub) and this is one of them. I had never seen Jill perform, so it wasn’t about her work, just about solo improv in general. Her answer absolutely delighted me. Rather than practical solutions on how to counter looking like you were a smart git, she brightly said “Why shouldn’t you be smug, you’re doing a SOLO IMPROV SHOW! That’s amazing”.
Favourite Jill Bernard exercise:
Loserball: throw a mime ball around the circle. No one ever manages to catch it and every miss is met with celebration.
Nancy Howland Walker
I met Nancy at Second City in 2005. Rachel Blackman and I were taking the intensive there and saw that she was running a musical improv class at the weekends. There were three weekends and we had missed the first one. Nevertheless, Nancy was completely open-hearted and shoved us right in at the deep end with solos on the first day. I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared but nor have I learned a tool that has been so life-changing and beautiful as improvising songs. Nancy is one of the warmest and most caring teachers I have ever had.
Favourite advice from Nancy Howland Walker:
On the way to sing Sondheim: “Whatever the piano is doing, do something else.”
Charna is many things to improv and kind of the mother of long form, so I was very excited to spend a week with her in London in 2013. The first two days were tough and I didn’t connect with her much at all, but after that it was like a detective novel; she had been watching and listening and working out who we all were as people. I don’t think she cared what our improv was like until she knew who were were. And then, she broke off from improv entirely, got us all to tell personal stories sitting on stage and connecting with one another. Immediately of course, our improv sky-rocketed. We dropped our bullshit of trying to impress her and one-another and just played. That’s the kind of teacher I want.
Favourite form from Charna Halpern (originally performed by the Family):
The Living Room: where you tell stories on a sofa with a beer in your hand and whenever you’re inspired you get up and do a scene.
Rachel is my twoprov partner of 11 years. We played in the Maydays together for a lot of that time too. Rachel is an incredible friend and a ridiculously talented actress and theatre-maker. While I’m off being silly, she makes a practice of her art. She knows how to do the work, how to be professional and how to make improv that matters. She is the one that encouraged me to train in Chicago, because if you’re going to learn, learn from the best. We don’t get to do our show as often as we would like, but when we do (even if months have gone by) it is still the show that I am the most proud of. It’s theatre, actual theatre. It’s funny and it’s often ridiculous, but I’ve tried to bottle the connection I have with Rachel in other teams and it’s just not possible. She is the TJ to my Dave (or the other way around).
Favourite exercise from Rachel Blackman (Meisner technique):
We sit right opposite one another, knees touching and we take turns saying “I’m watching you, watching me”.
I hope you get the chance to work with some or all of these crazy geniuses. Every minute I’ve spent with them has made my work better and my heart a little warmer.