I Guess I’m the Asshole, Susan Messing — PART ONE

I am stuck on improv, and not in a Lionel Richie kind of way.  I perseverate.  I can’t move beyond my inner teenage ballyhoo of “It’s not fair!” 


For the Project, or anything else artistic, to grow, I need to get it out, get it on, get over it.


This will take a few entries.


I will start with this reposting of something I put on Facebook six months ago.  It has to start here, with this collage.  I know it’s a sort of cheating repost, but the next few entries will outline my year-plus of improv and it’s impact on me. 


Note that the intro on Facebook is a piece of crap – of course I was talking about my instructors and classmates.  It was a Great Year in scope, but not in joy, although it’s also important to note that I had some unbelievably positive experiences layered between many many more painful ones.  I learned a lot, and the lessons were more often of the Life kind than the improv kind.


That dream is done – or, perhaps, evolving is a better word.


I will try to wrap up this rehash and self-flagellate and learn and move on within a week.  At some point, when you’re stuck in the mud, you need to stop fixating on being stuck in the mud and just hoist yourself out.


I am one 45-minute show short of completing my introductory year of improvisation studies at Second City. I’ve kept a journal of the journey, which I will not be sharing on Facebook, and am amused at how much it sounds like a first draft of a late-model Quentin Tarantino project. I culled out some non-Second City aspects which inform my Second City experience and interpretations. They make sense to me and probably only me. I take pleasure in self-aggrandizing. If my complete story is ever published, or stolen and spread around Second City like some horrific coming-of-age climactic lunchroom scene out of a Judy Blume novel, only at that point would these five images/moments/experiences be gently saddled to goings-on in Levels A-E.

It is important for me to note that none of the following refers to anyone in my class. These refer to me, my experience, my interpretation. Even if I had the time to analyze my incredible classmates and match them with other fun moments in my life, I wouldn’t. Also, story number 5 does not parallel any experience I had with any of my Second City instructors. None of my instructors was anything like Professor Dipstick. Just wanna be clear about that.

It has been a Great Year, an Important Venture, one I speak of gently and with purpose, often pretending I’m narrating some sort of weird Winnie-The-Pooh-Goes-To-Improv-Class tale. Not that I see myself as Winnie — I’d be too irritated getting my head consistently stuck in a honey jar.

Many people are asking what is next. I will be starting the writing program in January and hope to make it into the Music Conservatory in the next round of auditions. I am happy at Second City…happiest at show and conservatory auditions, believe it or not. At this time, no other program has a call that drowns out the siren song of North and Wells.

Sweep Edit

One: A story floats around about Keanu Reeves. It seems poor Keanu spends a lot of time in New York taking as many acting classes as he can. Workshopping Keanu also spends a lot of time sitting on the floor of theater bookstores, surrounded by How-Tos and scripts, searching desperately for The Secret to Acting. The man apparently is as knowledgeable about the art, craft, science, and criticism of theater and performance as he is excruciating an actor to watch. The work in which he excelled is also that which has limited his career.

Two: When I was a plucky young 23-year-old grad student, I had a dear gal pal and fellow student with whom I formed a fast friendship. She was studying to be an art teacher, was a fantastic artist herself, and although there were a few years separating us (as well as the giant trench—MARRIAGE—which at 23 seems to divide women into the have and have-nots, or at least get-its and get-it-nots) I had finally found that girl pal I’d been waiting for most of my wee adult life. Rochelle (her real name) and I worked on projects together in class, talked endlessly about what we would do when we got our own classrooms, and did each others’ hair. Except for that last part.

For one project, we were shopping in Boys’ Town for props. Between her artsiness and my performance weirdness, we liked to use props. (Mind you, this was a presentation in statistics class.) We needed a glorious hat. Be-feathered and be-laced. Fantastic. We wandered into a small second-hand store, run by an older gentleman, who eyed us warily when we walked in. Immediately I spotted a stunner, something born of a cannot-be-forgotten-one-night-stand between Easter Parade and a Shriners’ Parade. I took it off the stand and put it on my head. Good Shopkeep started to scream at me that I’d put the hat on wrong. When I say “scream” I am not exaggerating. The man berated me for a good 45 seconds at the top of his lungs. 45 seconds is a long and impressive time to yell at a stranger, particularly a potential customer. Go ahead. Set a timer, walk up to a client, yell at him for 45 seconds. Then come back.

I put the hat back on its stand and walked out of the store in tears. I was 23. I now would know that such a disproportionate response usually indicates pain in someone’s life, and I would have probably handled it differently. Would still have walked out, though.

I assumed Rochelle was right behind me. I turned around, embarrassed, teary, wanting to get away from the epicenter of my humiliation and go to one of the outer concentric circles, where the fallout would be slight and not necessarily permanent. I saw she was still in the store, smiling, chatting, laughing with Good Shopkeep. Had I overreacted?

She exited the store, big smile on her face, big hat box in her hand. Of course no surprise that it contained that beauty of a chapeau that I had defiled by putting it on sideways. I looked at Rochelle, stunned. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
“Didn’t you hear him yelling at me?”
“Oh, that. Yeah. He really cut into you, didn’t he? Well, so what? He’s just a miserable guy. Look, I got the hat.”
“You got the hat? From him? Why?”
“We need it for the project.”

Three: If there were a pop-up available for this monologue, it would be that shriveled up, misshapen horrible little Spartan Ephialtes from 300…but earlier in the film when he inspired pity and weirdly, pride, not later when he was traitorous. I like his pluck, his passion, his outsiderness.

Four: My favorite professor was Barb Pelligrini; she taught a class about adult education. That was my favorite class, not coincidentally. Barb told us that the key to teaching adults is to respect the complicated lives they have outside the classroom, to assume all participants are wary of being there, to teach to the highest level of intelligence in any situation, and to make it FUN — childlike but not childish. Her class was full of laughter, games, brilliance, poignancy, silliness, and moments of genius from classmates who had been considered “middling” in other courses.

Barb was one of my first life mentors. She loved my writing. She loved my approach to research. She loved my common sense mixed with my ridiculous idealism. She loved my humor. I had never felt so buoyed by one teacher in all my life. She would return my papers peppered with exclamation marks of agreement and surprise. I could practically hear her laughing and “mmm hmmm”ing when she read my little interpretations of life, educational philosophy, and how the practice of it never seemed to match the theory. (I had some teaching experience before entering grad school, so I often used those as my “reality check” for assigned readings.)

She and I never mingled outside of class, save once when I happened to be passing by her office. She called out to me, practically knocking over her chair to chase me down the hall. “Jackie! Come in!  Come in!” We sat and chatted, and she told me things I needed and wanted to hear from her…that I had talent, that I would make my mark on the teaching world, that my presentations in class were lively and inspirational and important, that my writing must be continued so that people Understand Things.

She saw excellence in me and taught me to find it in students. No matter what. She taught me to make every student I had feel like she made me feel…like the Chosen One (see Keanu Reeves).

A week later I was near her office again, and I saw her with a classmate of mine. That classmate was beaming, laughing, being enveloped in love, a paper of his being praised by Barb for its brutal honesty, its depth of research, its serious tone. That classmate was a Chosen One as well. We all probably were. I felt no jealousy. That was The Greatest Teaching Moment of my life.

Five: I once had to take a creative writing course. The instructor was a semi-successful fiction writer. He’d been published in journals that probably only other professors and semi-successful fiction writers read. He was brilliant and bitter. He hated my writing. No one had ever hated my writing before. Not to say that it’s above criticism, but, in serious contrast to Barb Pelligrini’s snowflakes of exclamation points of approval, the man red-penned about every other line. My stories always seemed out of order, out of place, out of time, out of luck. He never graded a thing…he said he would base our final grade on a rewrite of one of our stories of our choosing at the end of term.

Each week of class we had an assignment. Two people were privately assigned a week to anonymously give out their assignment for the entire class to read, comment, and critique. My week came toward the end of the quarter. I sat quietly while the other person’s story was mildly damned, mildly praised by one and all. Good suggestions were made by the class, and I have to believe that whoever’s story it was walked out of there feeling at least neutral about the process.

My turn came. In a break with protocol, the instructor spoke first. (He usually let the class discuss the writing, then offered his opinions most definitively, which often ended all discussion.)

I had written a story about the loss of freedom that comes from aging…reflecting on my 12-year-old experiences of training bras and my first detention (totally undeserved, by the way) and losing the time and the will to ride my bicycle precariously on dirt mounds on the construction site lot behind my house.

“This…” said Professor Dipstick (not his real name), waving his red-penned copy of my story around…”is crap. Entire sections are unnecessary, the author is not as funny as she thinks she is, and quite frankly, there is no connection with reader.” To illustrate how serious he was, he turned to the last page of his copy of my work. On there was written “CRAP.” He had been kind enough to write it large enough for me to not have to squint to read it from 15 feet away.

I felt my defense mechanisms kick into high gear. I averted my gaze and heard the whirring in my head slow down to stillness.

Something happened.
“Uh, Professor Dipstick,” ventured a brave classmate. “I loved this.”
Assent filled the room.
“I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“This is the best thing we’ve read all term.”
“I’m a dude and I TOTALLY got what she was saying about training bras as, like, a metaphor for the other stuff.”
“I laughed out loud. I never do that.”

My gaze remained averted, my mind unusually still…and…

Something happened.
“This story is mine.”

I had broken protocol as well.
No one had claimed their stories all quarter.
No one said anything to me after that. Discussion turned to the Cheever story we had also been assigned that week. Professor tossed my paper back at me. It looked like something John Madden had telestrated.

I used that paper for my grade.
I changed every damn thing he recommended for my rewrite


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.