Improvisation is an art form built around mistakes. If everything in an improvisational setting went the way we all thought it would, it would be boring for an audience to watch and for the improvisor to perform. At best, we may be ‘clever’ at certain points but the magic would not be there. That said, we cannot make mistakes happen in order to create the magic. They MUST be organic. Our job is simply to be aware of them when they happen and to keep ourselves in a place of pure and joyful acceptance for when they arrive.
On a recent Broadway’s Next Hit Musical tour to Potsdam, NY, we were fortunate to find ourselves in the presences of a joyful mistake!
The Red, White and Blues
An audience member at The Snell Theater at S.U.N.Y Potsdam had suggested the song title “The Red and White Blues”. I was lucky enough to pick it and said it was from the musical “Before Betsy”, which I described as being a biography of a lesser-known flag-maker who had been among the few to attempt to design the American flag. The scene and song were then performed. In them we learned that my wife Martha, played by Deb Rabbai, felt that I should give up on my flag-making passion and focus on more practical things. We also learned that my competition, Betsy Ross, played by Mallory Kinney, had gone completely crazy. That song ultimately won and was awarded the “Phony Award” and a full performance of it’s corresponding musical in the second half of the show. (In case you have not seen Broadway’s Next Hit Musical, that gives you a little taste of the format).
When the second half began, my fellow improviser, Jeff Scherer, became George Washington. He told us of the challenge before us: to raise morale for the revolutionary war soldiers by designing a flag that would spark their sense of patriotism. He presented this challenge to both me and Betsy Ross. We soon learned that Betsy and I had a romantic past that had been long left in the shadows. In the subsequent scenes, we learned that Martha, in her frustration with me, was being slightly flirtatious with George Washington. Ultimately, Betsy was awarded the job and I was left to wallow in my misery.
This was when our glorious ‘mistake’ made it’s entrance.
As I was sitting with Martha, bemoaning my loss, I said “I don’t know what I will do now, Betsy”. I MEANT to say Martha but for some reason, I said ‘Betsy’ instead. This was when all our improviser ears perked up. I then said, quite truthfully, “I don’t know why I said Betsy”. Martha said “Yes, why DID you say Betsy?!”. I then sang the first verse of a song in which I realized / admitted that I was still in love with Betsy Ross. Martha then sang the second verse in which she admitted that she was in love with George Washington.
And so, because of a mistake and the willingness and impulse to embrace it, my fellow actors and I were able to inadvertently tell the origin story of George and Martha Washington!
Embracing the Unknown
It all starts with an attitude. It’s not simply that we don’t fear mistakes. It’s that we LOVE them. They are our gateway to the unknown. They take us on paths that we would never have thought to go down. That is the magic of improvisation but it is also a magic that we must ALL embrace as performers, artists and, dare I say, as people. Whether I am improvising with Broadway’s Next Hit Musical, hosting an event as a corporate emcee, writing a song or being a Dad, I always do my best to dive in to the moments I didn’t see coming. When I do, I come out on the other side feeling more alive, having discovered new stories and from time to time, rewriting our presidential history!
Wanna watch some more glorious mistakes happen? Check out www.broadwaysnexthitmusical.com for all the dates. I guarantee you: glorious mistakes will abound!!