Spotlight: Susan Kaessinger on the Art of Improv and What It Takes to Teach NYC to Express Themselves

With over 20 years of experience performing and teaching on NYC’s improv and comedy scene, Susan Kaessinger is a formidable force of the famous “Yes, and…” rule. Wearing many hats to thrive as a performer and teacher, Susan has worked with people and kids of all ages from schools, to corporate offices, to the stages of venues all over the city. What’s her secret? And why is improv so great for everyone? Have no fear, Susan has the answer, and the question. Read on!

SALTED SPOTLIGHT: Susan Kaessinger

susan-k

So, what do you do for a living?

I teach improv to adults and children. I teach at The Lucy Moses School, through my Meetup group, Improve with Improv, by scheduling my own classes and through events like the one at tascbar this Thursday evening. I also coach performers and non-performers who wish to improve their presentation/performance skills, work on a script or a monologue, develop material, etc. Corporate team building workshops are also a source of income.

When did you start performing and teaching improv?

I started studying improv about 25 years ago. I took an audition techniques class and the teacher, Wendy Dillon, used a lot of improv to teach these skills. She was a great teacher. She was knowledgeable, supportive and encouraging. I was invited to join her improv group which she started after she left a well known NYC improv troupe called, “TheatreSports.”

Our group, “Mission: Improv-able,” would sometimes teach workshops to high school students or to other improv groups, so that is how I started teaching. One day I decided to ask some friends and family to come to a free workshop and give me feedback. They loved it, everyone in the class wanted to continue and they offered to pay me.

“Mission: Improv-able” performed at various venues in NY, Connecticut, Washington, DC, etc. I have been in several other improv groups since then including a P.I.T. (People’s Improv Theater) musical improv house team called, “MC Hammerstein” and my current group, “Mishmash!” which, for over three years now, does three shows a month at The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City.

School us, what is it about improv that makes it unique from other forms of comedy?

Well the obvious answer is that it is not scripted. Also, improv is not necessarily comedic. It can be dramatic, profound, interesting, bizarre, etc. I see improv as a set of tools that can be used to enhance any creative endeavor. Improv is a performance art in and of itself but it also is a great complement to acting, comedy, writing, even relationships. 

You teach adults and children, which ones are better improv students?

I find teaching children more challenging than teaching adults, mostly because I don’t like to be a disciplinarian. What’s great about children is that most young children (up to about age 11 or 12) do not judge, edit or dismiss their own ideas. They state them boldly and with pride, “I am a mouse that does karate and I bake cookies!” Children’s natural expressiveness, however, can devolve into chaos so they need to funnel that creative energy into form and structure. They key is for the structure to be a vehicle through which they can express themselves, rather than something that suppresses or obstructs their creativity.

After age 12 they tend to start to shut down and become worried about what others think of them, especially their peers. They often act disinterested but they still take something away from the class. This became clear to me one day when a group of teenagers that I had taught an improv game to the week before came into class and said, “We want to do that again but we changed it and it’s better now than what you taught us.” So I said to go ahead and do it. I was  thrilled that they were doing stuff I taught in class outside of my classroom, and they actually did come up with some enhancements to the game.

Adults, for the most part, are self disciplining. However, they are often the opposite of children in that they are so concerned with doing things “correctly” that they suppress the free flow of ideas and expression. So it is important to create a safe, non-judgmental and non-competitive environment where they can feel free to express themselves and to encourage them to do so.

You offer corporate classes, too. Why should a non-aspiring comedian hone their improv skills?

Many professionals have to work collaboratively with others, speak at meetings, do presentations or deal with clients. Improv skills can be extremely helpful in learning how to be more effective in all of these areas. Improv promotes camaraderie, cooperation and levity in a work environment. Many professionals report feeling more relaxed, natural and connected when interacting with others at work.

What’s your biggest challenge working for yourself? What’s your greatest reward?

The biggest challenge is having to wear so many hats. I am the secretary, teacher, coach, producer, director, organizer, performer, stage manager, marketing manager, therapist, chauffeur, etc. etc. Also, sometimes my efforts are fruitless and sometimes they work out great. I’ve learned to accept that some things don’t work out and you have to just let it go and move on to the next project. (Don’t worry, I won’t start singing “Let It Go” now.)

The greatest reward is that I have had the privilege to work with and make a difference in the lives of so many wonderful people, many of whom have become good friends and/or fellow performers. It delights me that I have been entrusted to be a guide to these creative souls as they pursue their dreams and goals.

What does work/life balance mean to you? How do you make it happen?

I’m not sure that I am consciously making it happen. There are no clear lines between the two to me. So much of my work is my life and so much of my life is my work. I guess I should consider myself lucky that most of the time I don’t feel burdened by the work that I do.

What are two essential tips you would give to someone trying improv for the first time?

1) Take my class. ;)

2) You can be afraid and still do it. Fear doesn’t have to be a reason not to do something.

Yes and…? ;)

“Yes, and…” is the number one rule of improv. The idea is that you always say, “Yes,” to your scene partners’ ideas and then build on them. Without it improv can become a power struggle in which the most aggressive person “wins.” With it, everybody gets to make a contribution to the scene and everybody’s ideas are validated.

~

Susan Kaessinger has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, performer, director and coach and is currently a faculty member of The Lucy Moses School where she teaches both adults and children. She also leads workshops for actors twice weekly through her MeetUp group “Improve with Improv.” With her improv group “Mishmash,” Susan performs regularly at The Creek and The Cave theater in Long Island City where she was the recipient of the 2013 Creek Award for Best Improv. Her blog was nominated for an INNY award from Improvisation News in 2012. 

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