A performer doesn't nearly pitch over the edge of a cruise ship stage while performing a "Roller Chair Ballet" without learning a lesson in live theater's unpredictability.
Since Mary Theresa Archbold and husband Pat Shay veterans of Chicago's ImprovOlympic Theatre, which feeds talent to programs like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show can't dodge the precariousness associated with live theater, they use it to their advantage. Their collaborative two-person sketch, Jazz Hand: Tales of a One Armed Woman, has earned an award from the New York International Fringe Festival and collected rave reviews nationwide.
Archbold was born missing the lower half of her left arm, and Jazz Hand is a semi-autobiographical collection of stylized sketches playing off the ups and downs of life with a prosthetic limb.
Not wanting to disclose too much about their show, scheduled to play at the Manitou Art Theatre over Thanksgiving, Archbold and Shay say only that it closely mirrors Archbold's struggles and accomplishments, as well as people's reactions to her. For example, Shay says, one scene is staged as a "film noir interrogation," illustrating the many ways Archbold has attempted to hide or draw attention from her prosthesis over the years.
Although performing Jazz Hand doesn't pose as much of a physical challenge as their cruise ship routine of a few years ago, the couple's improvisational training has taught them that when things go awry, it's best to incorporate them into the act.
"After all," Shay explains, "we know something went wrong, and the audience knows something went wrong, and if we do it just right, the ending result can sometimes be funnier than it would have been without it."
The surprises that create opportunities for improvisation, along with exchanges of energy Shay and Archbold share with the audience, are some of the "gifts" Archbold associates with performing live.
Theater is just one area in which Archbold has enjoyed success, thanks in part to the support of a loving family and a mother who taught her that there was nothing she couldn't do. She's been involved with gymnastics, horseback riding and soccer, and she attended the University of Michigan on a dance scholarship.
"My parents had a lot of faith and when I was born, they knew I was meant for them," Archbold says. Now her six older brothers are raising 19 nieces and nephews to realize it's OK to be different and to accept people the way they are. Archbold and Shay are trying to communicate the same message to their audience.
"Everyone has 'that one thing' that makes them different, whether they try to hide it or not," says Shay, who's eager to bring the show to Colorado Springs, where he spent most of his childhood as the son of a military father.
"We're hoping for a deeper acceptance and understanding of something everyone views as a bad thing," Archbold adds. "There doesn't have to be a pity party."