Not Quite Shakespeare

The newspaper clipping above is from an article published in the Daily Sentinel Star, the Grenada, Mississippi, newspaper, on February 4, 1980, after my sister Leana and I were cast in the Grenada Fine Arts Playhouse production of Bells are Ringing. The newspaper clipping above is from an article published in the Daily Sentinel Star, the Grenada, Mississippi, newspaper, on February 4, 1980, after my sister Leana and I were cast in the Grenada Fine Arts Playhouse production of Bells are Ringing.

Life is full of unplanned moments. We are told to be prepared and to expect the unexpected. This advice pairs well with knowing how to improvise. It’s an important skill and one I was lucky enough to learn long ago. Growing up, both of my parents were active with the local amateur theatre, and it didn’t take long for my sister and I to get involved as well. Both of us learned to love being on stage. We also learned to improvise.

The budgets of small, amateur playhouses are always tight. Consequently, everyone working both on and off stage had to help build the sets. Some of us weren’t very good at it. One time during the opening scene of a live performance, one of the characters was supposed to storm off stage after an argument with her husband. The actor was supposed to jerk open the door and slam it behind her on the way out. Instead, the doorknob came off in her hand when she yanked on it. Without missing a beat, she turned to the actor playing her husband and yelled, “You’re such an idiot! You were supposed to fix this!” She threw the knob at him as though she really were mad. He ducked but still managed to catch it. Perhaps not knowing what else to do, he tossed the knob onto the couch. Two scenes later my sister, who was playing a friend of the bickering couple, inadvertently sat on the knob. She pulled it out, looked at it, and then turned to the husband and asked, “Weren’t you supposed to fix this?” The play continued the rest of the night with actors throwing in random lines about the doorknob. The audience never knew they were watching improv, but they were.

Learning to improvise on the fly has served me well in multiple ways over the years both at work and at home.

As a scientist, I’ve given hundreds of talks in my career, and I still get a little nervous in the few minutes right before I go on. I think it’s because when you are live on stage you simply never know what’s going to happen. You can plan. You can rehearse. But it is impossible to prepare for the unexpected. Sometimes things go wrong, like the doorknob, and you just have to improvise. On one such occasion, I was the second of four speakers who were each supposed to give a 10-minute talk. As I was approaching the podium, the moderator whispered to me, “The third speaker can’t make it. Can you talk for 20 minutes?” I stared at him blankly for a moment. Stretch a 10-minute slide presentation to 20 minutes? I wanted to shake my head no, but instead I smiled and nodded and wondered how I would manage it.

Normally, in a scientific presentation you give only the best parts of the research. You start with your hypothesis and then present the studies that proved it in a neat little package. Of course, that’s not how it really happens. Scientific exploration is generally a little messier than that. Sometimes it’s a lot messier. There are usually mistakes along the way and a fair amount of trial and error. The motto in my lab is “Experiments never fail. They either work or I learn something.” In 30 years of research, I’ve learned a lot from experiments that didn’t go according to plan.

In order for my 10-minute talk to last 20 minutes, I decided to throw in a couple of stories about how things had gone wrong before they went right. The audience had several good laughs at my expense, and although it probably wasn’t what the moderator had in mind, I did manage to take up the full 20 minutes.

That wasn’t the first time I had been put on the spot unexpectedly. The last week of my senior year in high school we had final exams. If you had an “A” in the class, you were exempt from the exam. If you were exempt from all of your exams, you had permission to miss school the entire week. I was exempt from all of my exams except math. Therefore, I was not excused from any class. Wednesday of that week it was raining hard, and as I got out of the car I stepped into a huge puddle of water that soaked my shoes and clothes up to my knees. There was nothing for me to do in school since I had already taken my math exam. Wet and miserable, I made a decision. Screw it. I didn’t care that it would be unexcused. I was skipping school. I got back in my car and headed home. Since this was a decade or two before cell phones, I decided I should stop by my mom’s work to tell her I wasn’t going to school. My mother, a local radio personality, happened to be doing a remote that day. That meant she would broadcast live commercials throughout the day from a local business. That particular rainy day she was at the Piggly Wiggly, a grocery store that had just reopened after being renovated. I saw her as soon as I walked in. She was live on-air telling listeners to come by and see the new and improved store. Most mothers would be upset to learn their child had ditched school. Not my mom. She just looked at me and told her audience, “Now here’s my daughter to tell you about today’s specials.” Then she handed me the live mike and a newspaper. I read a few specials and then handed the mike back to her. She had improvised, and I went with it. Expect the unexpected.

Nowhere do I expect the unexpected more than as a parent. Most of the time I have no idea what I am doing. Not surprisingly, this leads to a lot of improvisation.

When my sons were two and four, they shared a bedroom with a huge walk-in closet. The closet was so large, we used it to store all the stuff we bought in bulk at Costco. Although I always put the boys to bed in their own room, more often than not one or both of them eventually crawled into bed with me and my husband. One night when the boys hadn’t come to our room, I went to check on them. Their beds were empty. I looked under the beds. Not there. I checked the bathroom, the living room, and the kitchen. No boys. I was starting to panic, and I ran back to the bedroom to wake my husband and call the police, but then I heard something and stopped. It was coming from their closet. The unmistakable sound of giggling. I opened the door, and there were my boys. It was summer, but the closet looked like a winter wonderland. Kendrick had opened every box of baby wipes and pulled every one of them out. He was throwing them into the air and watching them fall. Did I mention we shop at Costco? Hundreds of baby wipes were piled high and surrounded my sons. Not to be outdone, Keaton had found several boxes of Desitin—a thick, white cream used to prevent diaper rash. He was painting the walls with it. I knew that I should have been mad, but 30 seconds before I thought they had been kidnapped, so more than anything I was relieved. Instead of getting angry, I laughed. I laughed so hard I cried—and then I improvised. I covered my face and pretended I was crying because I was upset. I didn’t want them to know I was laughing. I don’t remember what punishment I handed out, but I know we used baby wipes out of plastic baggies for a long time after that.

I think Shakespeare had it right when he said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Unfortunately, most of the time I feel less like one of Shakespeare’s characters and more like I belong in a Saturday Night Live skit. Oh well. At least it’s never boring.