Now don’t get me wrong, I hate making mistakes as much as the next person. Sometimes enough to lose sleep over a typo in a crucial letter or to obsess over some nonsensical sentence that pops out of my mouth at the wrong time in the wrong context or… well, you know, the endless litany of possible mistakes, from the microscopic to the titanic.
Particularly when I was a young actress, just starting out, I used to dread mistakes with all my heart and soul. I was abjectly terrified of saying a line “incorrectly” or of anything at all going wrong onstage.
A thousand and one years ago, around the time that I was doing improv comedy on the Bowery, I was also, at the same time, playing Gwendolyn Fairfax in a mangy, flea-bitten production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” right down the street. (For those of you who don’t know “Earnest,” it’s Oscar Wilde and very light and lacy and, of course, a natural selection for one of the diciest neighborhoods in New York City at the time.)
Anyhow, in the middle of the play, I had to enter down a long flight of stairs into Cecily Cardew’s garden and I would pass beneath a pretty white trellis strung with plastic roses — a trellis which happened to be prettily perched between some ominous looking paper mache boulders, intended for the concurrent production of Dracula.
So, during the whole first act, while I’m sitting backstage waiting for my cue, I’m hearing these small, strange, creaking sounds coming from the stage. I have no clue as to the source of these sounds until I make my entrance at the top of the stairs, at which point I see that this pretty white trellis with the plastic roses has been tipping over, inch by inch, and is now teetering mid-waist. The only way around it is to climb over those paper mache boulders in mid-Victorian costume, beckoning disasters too complex to even contemplate.
Ordinarily, I would’ve been paralyzed when faced with such an onstage emergency, but because of the improv comedy pumping through my veins at the time, I just stood there for a moment, gazed disdainfully down at the trellis in character, and then — did the limbo walk underneath. I got a big laugh and even a bit of applause from all four people in the audience. It was the most fun I ever had during the run of that show. And it’s one of the reasons I still miss improv, which always kept me facile and fluid and fearless.
The thing is, mistakes do feel infinitely more hazardous on stage in front of a live audience, as the world that you’ve built with your fellow thespians is paper thin and ultra-fragile and really can fall to pieces if something goes too ridiculously wrong. That’s what’s so terrifying and exciting about live theatre; it feels a little like playing at the edge of a cliff.
I once had the good fortune to play opposite Anthony Newley in a national revival tour of “Stop the World I Want to Get Off.” Just after we opened in Pittsburgh and began the run, Tony addressed my anxious, feverish devotion to perfection, “You know, Suz – it ain’t Shakespeare. They’re just skits, really. And sometimes, we’ll just…you know, play.”
Well, I felt a cloud lift as he smiled at me with a twinkle in his eye, even though I had no idea what he was talking about — until one day, somewhere along the road, when he screwed up a line. And I saw the corners of his mouth turn up. And then the corners of my mouth turned up. And then the audience started to giggle as they saw that something had gone “wrong.” And a “dangerous” moment of Who Knows What’s Going to Happen Now dawned…
And I really can’t tell you how, but from that moment, obviously bouncing off some unspoken cue from the maestro, I instinctively assumed the role of Actress Trying Desperately to Remain Professional, while Tony assumed the role of Very Badly Behaved Star Doing Whatever He Could to Undo the Teetering Resolve of Said Actress.
Well, from that night forward, it was a little improv thing we’d slip into whenever something went wrong. For several performances in a row, he’d repeat the “mistake” and we’d mess around like that in the vicinity of it. We never talked about it, we just did it.
The pay dirt here was that each time he made a mistake and then milked it, he’d have the audience eating out of his hand for the rest of the show. One of the very richest lessons in showbiz I ever got, and far and away one of the most fun.
Oh, I’m still pretty partial to perfection. But in all the different creative expressions I’ve explored, over time I’ve learned to be more and more welcoming of mistakes. They so often tend to be goldmines.