Late on a Friday afternoon in the Annoyance Theatre’s grungy brick- lined storefront performance space, Susan Messing is working with a dozen improvisation students on character-development exercises. The next step, she announces, is to develop scenes using similar techniques.

“Do you want us to use the same characters we did before?” a student asks.

“Sure,” Messing says. “If you’ve only got one or two characters in your fucking body! You poor girl. Know that you guys have a need to create real live people here, which now obviously none of you can say you can’t do”–Messing goes into a baby voice–“because I can see that you can make up new things.” Then back in her regular voice, she says, “What we’re going to do now is two-minute scenes, followed by one-minute scenes. Do it. Live it. Love it. Let’s go. Get up there, fuckers!”

Women are in a distinct minority in Chicago improv, and because of this, Messing says, often feel they have to prove themselves more quickly and more thoroughly than men. At Second City, the largest and most famous of the city’s improv training centers, a typical cast contains five men and two women. ImprovOlympia, another prominent showcase for improvisers, often only features one or two women on its “teams,” which are usually made up of eight or more people. Because they’re so outnumbered, women improvisers tend to fall into prescribed–and usually subordinate–roles.

Men, more often than women, make what in improv are called “strong initiations” onstage; they enter a scene with a clearly defined character or physical action that others must follow. Many women find themselves merely reacting to the men onstage, playing roles that depend on the men for definition: fawning wives and mothers, dumb secretaries, whores, sisters, and girlfriends. In a genre where everything is instantaneous, the parts men and women play can reveal certain societal assumptions about sex roles, and also what the actors think about themselves.

Mick Napier, the founder of the Annoyance, says he came up with the idea of the women’s class because he was tired of women complaining that men were treating them badly onstage. “It’s not really men that place women in subordinate roles,” he says, “it’s men exhibiting x amount of power onstage, and women, because they’re in the minority or because everything they’ve experienced in their lives dictates that they do so, find themselves in reaction to men. It’s difficult to find your power onstage when you’re reacting to something.”

Napier tapped Messing and Annoyance ensemble member Jodi Lennon to teach the class, which lasts eight weeks, with each teacher running four classes. They tried one round of women’s classes in the summer. It was popular with students, so they’ve begun a second session.

“If you’re a woman,” Napier says, “and you’d like to know if you’re a good improviser or not, one of the gauges is how much time you spend thinking about the issue of being a woman improviser. The powerful women I know give no credence to the concept that men are in any way, shape, or form involved in their process of learning and growth.

“I’m to the point now where, if a woman improviser were to bore me to tears, and come up and engage in this conversation with me, I would support them in the notion that oh yes, you’re right, oh, men are awful. What I’ll be saying is ‘Oh yeah, oh God, oh that asshole.’ What I’m thinking is, you are a powerless, boring, vulnerable victim of improvisation, and you will learn or you will not learn that the conversation you’re having right now is the reason you’re not working well. That you’re having it is the reason you’re showing up as afraid as you do.”

Napier’s improv philosophy is antifear–he belives that improvisers should take situations to dangerous, even obscene extremes. But underneath the theater’s self-styled rebel mentality lie the standard rules of improv, which Napier says apply to all improv troupes, regardless of their stance on performance. Nothing that a performer does and says onstage should be ignored by other performers–everything that happens is fair game for a scene. Denying what somebody suggests onstage is perhaps the greatest improv sin; rejecting somebody’s suggestion for a scene stops it flat.

Performers should also respond as intelligently as possible to everything that happens. Jokes and one-liners should be avoided.

Bad improvisers don’t pay attention to other players onstage and are always trying to make jokes rather than milking humor from situations. Good improvisers treat situations onstage as reality, and take them seriously.

Napier says that an improviser could (and should) be a god onstage, and his class instructors try to whip students into god mode. Messing moves around the room energetically, giving her students a pep talk like a punk Knute Rockne. “I want you to take the fear of things you would normally do and say fuck it to that and even more,” she says. “I’m gonna do it to the nth degree. I’m sick of your safe zone, you’re sick of your safe zone–you can do that until you die.”

Messing, who is 29, has been doing improv for almost seven years. Besides her work at the Annoyance–several shows per weekend at this point–she also spent a couple years at ImprovOlympics (now ImprovOlympia) and has performed with Second City and TheaterWorks. She says she did almost no satisfying work in her first two years as an improviser.

“I think I survived because I allowed such crap onstage. I remember somebody telling me, ‘Oh, Susan, we wouldn’t trade you for any other girl on our team.’ I thought, ‘Fuck you, I think I’m a fine improviser in my own right.’ I’m not a lady improviser. You know, add titties and you’ve got a lady improviser. I used to be nervous about that. It’s a lot more difficult to separate myself as a woman from this, because when I do it, I automatically screw myself over. I’ve just got to look at it and say, I’m an individual onstage.”

If a woman shows strength as an improviser, she is accepted by the community, says Messing’s cohort Jodi Lennon. If someone is good onstage, they ‘ll be noticed and respected regardless of her gender. Nonetheless, the all-women’s class does have its benefits.

“They have predominantly women’s institutions for a reason,” Messing says. “You don’t have to put on your makeup and deal with your socialized lady stuff.”

In her class, that attitude produces scenes, some good, some bad, but very few specifically about “women’s issues.” “It doesn’t matter so much the label of the scene or where it takes place,” Messing says. “I just know that people are coming offstage and saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never done a character like that before.’ I haven’t gotten one PMS scene, one lesbian scene, one period scene, I haven’t gotten anything like that, and I’m thrilled.”

The scenes don’t deal with stereotypes, Messing says, even though one of her purposes is to address them. “I don’t have time for that anymore,” she says. “So when someone thinks that they’re fucking with me or thinks that they’re laying on me onstage, I don’t have time to be in judgment of that anymore. I’m at this point where I’m like, well, thanks for the gift, I’ll play with that, I’ll see you later, and if you want to play with me, that’s great. And if you want to berate me onstage, I’ll play that game too, but that’ll just become an argument and we’ll get nowhere. So I’m not going to fight you, I’ll play your game if you want. Don’t sit on your hands. Come on, fucker, let’s play.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.