Your Mother Should Know

By Tara Lynn Wagner


Last month, my mother, her six closest girlfriends and their daughters all descended upon the HomeGrown Theater at 100th Street and Broadway for an evening of riotous good improvisational fun at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam. I should be used to it. Most of these women have been coming to see me perform since I was a bunny in the kindergarten production of Dr. Doolittle.

In the restaurant before the show, they asked me to explain exactly what it was they were about to see. “You mean, there’s no rehearsal?” they said “What if you forget your next line? How do you know what you’re supposed to say next?”

Once they had digested the point of improv, along with their drinks, the one thing that they truly seemed in awe of was the bit called “Can You Sing This?”


Quite frankly, I am in awe of “Can You Sing This?” myself. In fact, I’d call my feeling one of borderline terror. I’m a classically trained opera singer. I’m a musical theater pro. Dammit, Jim, there are RULES! Music isn’t something you go about all willy-nilly and half-cocked. There are‚ you know‚ notes and measures and‚ key changes and chord-y things, not to mention that little fraction all the way to the left (that must be important because it involves some semblance of math).

But come to think of it, home is exactly where it all started. At least my home. With my mother. Who practically lurched under her seat when Tom Soter, the show’s host, was looking for a volunteer from the audience, but who, is virtually a queen of improv herself.

You see, several years ago, I appeared in my first fully staged opera, La Traviata, a four-hour-long feat of music starring a great big soprano who, in a real shocker of an ending for opera lovers, dies of consumption. I played her maid. I got to rush in every now and again and sing little sentences like, “I called for the doctor,” or “A letter has arrived.”

Riveting stuff. Some of my best work. But don’t think my family was too impressed. The day after they witnessed the wonder of opera for the first time, my mother declared (while vacuuming) that if I could do it, then, by golly, she could do it, too. She then not only decided to showcase her own opera talent, she one-upped me and launched into a full-fledged, completely improvised opera of her own. This spread throughout the family and during the next week or so I experienced what it must have been like to live with Beethoven or Mozart had either of them lived in an insane asylum and done a lot of vacuuming.

Curtain opens to me lying on the couch, probably dying of consumption since this is, after all, an opera. In the background, we hear the faint hum of a distant vacuum and the far-off voice of some crazy woman whose vocal range is so unusual that it is not a soprano, alto, tenor, or bass. In she rushes and instantly begins to perform vocal gymnastics as she expounds upon the various side dishes we can have with chicken.

Suddenly, my sister, Eryn, marches onto stage clutching a shopping bag from the nearby outlet centers. Mother, in the mode of the one-sentence maid I recently portrayed, croons, “What’s in the bag?” to which Eryn replies by singing a moving aria about her brand new sports bra. A really loud, fast and frantic duet ensues about the many features of said newly purchased sports bra which is met by thunderous applause from me and much hacking from the cat. A very average day in the house of my youth. I mean, your family is just the same, right?

And so the moral of the story is that there is no good reason for me to be as awe-stricken and terrified as I am by “Can You Sing This?” since I was practically raised on it. Likewise, there is no reason why my mother should suddenly forget herself and act demure and quiet, hiding underneath her chair when I have seen that woman create spontaneous art in the key of vacuum.

So, get out from under that chair and take a bow, mom, and all you other closet song improvisers who write opuses in your showers. Those Gilbert and Sullivan guys have nothing on you.