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Susan Messing (pt.2): Specificity

Specificity Kills Ambiguity. One of the many great phrases Susan Messing uses to help students have more fun improvising. True for improvisers, true for athletes.


This phrase is getting me through triathlon training this month. So let's talk about what Susan means and explore how it helps with training in February.


Specificity Kills Ambiguity. Without getting too deep into the weeds of performance technique, in the context of improvising scenes, specifics make everything more fun. Performers improvising are making choices and reacting to each other's choices. Ambiguous, vague choices make it more difficult to react.


It applies to object work (deciding what you're holding) or dialogue (what you're saying) or location/setting. Any and all of the Who, What, Where, When. In scene work, specifics make the scene better. Better is a relative term, of course, but for now, better means more fun for the people playing. Which, if you remember, is kinda the point the Susan Messing makes with one of her other truly great truisms, "If you're not having fun, you're the asshole."


In other words, the phrase is a guideline for making choices, from very specific--"a five ounce can of Star-Kist tuna packed in water from the Safeway on Southern Avenue"--to very ambiguous--"a can."


Here's an example of a simple two-person scene:


Ambiguous version

"Is it hungry?

"I think so."

"Should we go buy some food?"


If I were playing this scene, here's what I might be thinking: What is "it?" Who are we? I don't know what to do. What is really going on? I should lock down something... something.... something... anything... wait, where is the thing that's hungry? What is it?


None of which is "bad" in and of itself. It just adds time to the scene. Time that stretches due to relativity from about two seconds of real time into roughly an hour in my mind.


This might also be how we got the phrase, "in your head." Although I've always wondered where else I could possibly be thinking my thoughts other than in my head, the expression itself speaks to the idea of being internally focused when I could be paying attention to details in the scene. Or in this case, the absence of details.


In the worst case scenario, I'd realize that I'm doing the thing described as "being in my head." Which, in fact, I have done... to the absolute ruination of the scene. Mostly because I'd just piled more time onto the time I was already spending wondering just what the hell was or wasn't going on.


Not nearly as fun as...


Specific version

"My cat is hungry, Tommy."

"Sammy, we are NOT giving her the last can of tuna in the cabinet."

"Fine. The Safeway on Southern Avenue opens in ten minutes."


Will either of these examples be an award-winner? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. Who cares. But in three short lines we know: Sammy wants to feed their female cat. Tommy doesn't want to share the last can of tuna. The specifics have created fun and interesting potential. Much of the fun of improvising is in realizing potential. Potential action--going to the store. Potential game--what to do with a hungry cat. Potential history--happened before. Ultimately, the goal is to convert as much of that potential energy into kinetic energy... ideally as fun which equals laughs. All that potential in three lines.


Great. As usual, we've wandered around a winding maze of improvisation lingo and technique to,,, what? Why is the phrase so powerful? Why is it helpful in February?


Specificity Kills Ambiguity. Is this sentence even particularly insightful, really? No. Specific is the opposite of ambiguous. Duh.


It's the verb choice--kills--that really cranks the energy. Kills has the emotional heft to make an otherwise simplistic and obvious comparison much more compelling. Kills is the active verb (third person present) between two dull noun things.


Super duper. We've gone from improvisation lingo to grammatical categorization. Stop digging, you hit boredom.


Good improvisers know the best way to have fun is to just play. Keep playing. Forget about the edit. The edit is not in their control. What they can control is having some fun by playing the specifics. Back to some specific choices to continue our example scenes:

  • Tommy could go to the kitchen cabinet and look for other things the cat can eat.

  • Try to lift the morbidly obese cat together.

  • Sammy could try to sneak the tuna to the cat.

  • Pull on ski masks to rob the Safeway.

  • Put a little ski mask on the cat, too.

  • Change clothes to avoid identification.

  • Change the cat's collar to avoid identification.

Doesn't even have to be in that order. Any order or all jumbled together. It all counts as fun.


Yes, if we were playing that scene, we'd want to build the energy of the scene toward some kind of climax. Just as athletes want to build training toward peak fitness. But in both cases--improvised scenes or endurance training--the ending is never clear until it happens.


Yes, And...?

Just like the beginning of a slow, ambiguous scene, the 2021 race calendar is utterly and completely lacking any specifics whatsoever; completely open and full of questions.


For many, an ambiguous race calendar sucks all the motivation, focus and energy out of training. For many athletes, just like many improvisers, this leads to "being in your head." and worse, thinking about being in your head. Who knows when or where the next race is going to happen? Why train?


For improvisation, it's the edit that cuts the scene. For training, it's the race event. Truth is, an athlete looking for a race event is an awful lot like an improviser looking for an edit. It's all in your head. It actually takes away from the fun you could be having right now.


Susan Messing provides a solution. Specificity Kills Ambiguity.


Just like improvising, the fun of training is in finding ways to convert potential energy into kinetic energy. Specific choices include:

  • Go for a 30-minute run.

  • Do three push-ups.

  • Bear crawl across the room once.

Doesn't even have to be in that order. Any order or all jumbled together. It all counts as fun.


Doing something specific kills the questions on my mind; the notion that the calendar owes me anything; the idea that the race has anything to do with my fun. Races and race events are just edits between the fun of improvised scenes that make up my life. If I'm really honest with myself, I know the next race might end up being one of a series of race events that I end up doing. After all, as long as the training is still fun, the race events will still be fun.


Ultimately, at the risk of getting all metaphysical, the truth is, we never really know when the final edit is coming. We really don't like to think about it too much.


So rather than wonder where and when the next race may or may not happen, I just go for a run. Instead of being in my head about an ambiguous race calendar, I'm engaged in some specific fun right now. And that has gotten me though a very ambiguous February.


Susan Messing is a treasure.


Specificity Kills Ambiguity.


And for February, 2021, that's enough. I'm going for a run now.

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