Chicago improv powerhouses Susan Messing and Rachael Mason come to Crossroads Comedy 

Let's hear it for The Boys

click to enlarge Susan Messing and Rachael Mason
  • Susan Messing and Rachael Mason

Susan Messing and Rachael Mason are two masters of improv. But master implies someone sitting at the top of a mountain holding an ancient scroll or some villain in an '80s movie who wears too much leather.

Regardless, Susan and Rachael have mastered the art of having fun with each other, no matter what. And that ability came through hard work. Together they form the improv group The Boys. And each member is deeply rooted in the Chicago improv scene.

Rachael is currently the head of Advanced Improvisation at The Second City and Susan is a founding member of Chicago's infamous Annoyance Theatre and is currently a teacher at iO Chicago, The Annoyance Theatre, The Second City, and is an adjunct instructor for DePaul University. The point is, they are not messing around. Well ... they're messing around, but they are the best at it. They are pros at making a mess on stage for us all to enjoy. And before they grace the Crossroads Comedy Festival with their skills they gave us a peek at their relationship with their craft and each other.

NUVO: Have you all ever done comedy in Indiana before?

Mason: I toured with The Second City for five years and I have done many, many shows in Indiana and Indianapolis

Messing: I have been stopped by Indiana. Does that count?

NUVO: You all travel a lot for comedy. Do you feel like being new places affects your improv or does it feel the same everywhere?

Messing: It does not feel the same everywhere. It depends on how much they know longform improvisation. Sometimes it feels like we are introducing it and sometimes we are already preaching to the converted.

NUVO: Which one do you like more?

Messing: It's really not about more or less. Certainly it's easier to bring the show in when the audience is completely ready for longform improv. But simply, it's just us making sure to protect content at the top of it through our intro so that they would understand more of what we're doing.

Mason: We talk about going to Europe and not trying to lean on our American reference level. I feel like you do adjust a little bit from everywhere you go but you always play to the top of your intelligence.

NUVO: Is there something nice about that? Being able to get outside cultures where improv is super prominent and being able to show people this for the first time?

Messing: It's exciting to introduce people to longform who haven't seen it. But I have to say it's easier to deal with an audience who has already dealt [with improv] just so you don't have to repeat the same information. But it's not something we begrudge the audience; it's our job to explain to them what they are about to see.

NUVO: You're both veterans of improv. What about it rather than other forms of comedy has stuck with you? What has led to making this your main thing?

Mason: I think it's that anything you want can happen and frequently will is truly exciting. Susan and I have been performing together for a long time, but it's different every time, and that is genuinely thrilling.

Messing: Although I enjoy sketch and stand-up and sitcoms, my absolutely passion is improvisational comedy because of the nature of flying without a net.

NUVO: What makes that no-net crash-and-burn risk appealing?

Mason: I think there is a net. It's your scene partner. Yes, there's no net as in there's no script, but Susan is my net and I'm her net. There's tremendous risk in that we don't know what's going to happen, but we can't wait to see what happens

Messing: Yeah! We're very excited about it.

NUVO: You have both been in a few groups; what specifically about each other, about The Boys is appealing?

Messing: My favorite thing about playing with Rachael is when I hate everyone I still love her. And that is the truth.

Mason: When I hate everything and everything is terrible and the world is on fire, Susan makes me laugh until I have to turn upstage and put my face into my elbow.

Messing: It is true. That has happened

NUVO: Is doing two-person improv more freeing or more limiting that doing improv with a larger group of people?

Messing: It's more luxurious. You really get to slow down and taste your food. I love playing with a large group of people but I'm probably happiest when I'm playing with Rachael

Mason: In a big group, they can make the shape of the airplane while you're the pilot, but Susan and I like to bring the airplane with us. We don't have that third person to edit [the scene]. So we can determine our own pace and we very much jive with each other on pace.

Messing: We probably teach more than we perform

NUVO: What is special about getting to teach in such an advanced fashion alongside performing regularly?

Messing: I teach for very selfish reasons. Because when I walk my talk I rock. But when I don't it's as if I started thirty minutes ago. And it's great to be reminded that this art is always evolving and we get to be in the forefront of that.

Mason: I also teach for selfish reasons. I like watching someone get an abstract concept like "funny" or "heightening." Watching someone "get it" totally turns me on.

NUVO: How much do you all consider the audience when you perform?

Mason: Ultimately the show is for them. We're not trying to do alienate-kill-yourself-prov. We are genuinely thrilled to be performing for the people we are performing for.

Messing: I actually don't perform for the audience. I perform to play for Rachael. And if they are as tickled as I am that I get to play with Rachael then so be it. But I don't play to them as if their laughter is my affirmation.

Mason: There's a difference between performing to the height of your intelligence and pandering to your audience.

Messing: We always have a great time. And when an audience isn't laughing it doesn't mean they aren't fascinated. And when they finally laugh it provides a release of tension. So I'm perfectly fine sitting with an uncomfortable moment for a minute. But the consequence is always comedy, but for me it's not the goal.

Mason: One of my favorite noises is "eww" or *gasp*.

NUVO: Is that ever a challenge for you, Rachael, knowing that Susan has a little bit more of that mentality?

Messing: No! We're very complementary.

Mason: We're incredibly complementary. It doesn't matter even what our personal intentions are. When we're on stage together we have more fun than anyone else so we win.

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