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Be a disruptive artist – if you dare.

I was recently stopped in my tracks by a Miles Davis quote, simple in its brilliance:

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”

Miles was a disruptive artist. Coming originally from a traditional music and jazz background, Miles became part of the cadre of artists who changed the “architecture” of jazz. He was a major part of the birth of be-bop.  Miles, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others were in the vanguard of this new experimental music. Some of it succeeded, some did not. Some was fun to listen to, some maddeningly disconnected to the melody that we are hard-wired to crave. No matter, it took hold and changed what came after it. It disrupted the norm.


The nature of deep artistic exploration is one where potential failure and lack of acceptance is ever-present.  But disruptive artists, by definition, do not accept the prevailing dogma – in fact they continually try to re-invent, and recreate something new, original, unheard of or unseen before.  This is heavy lifting and not for the faint of heart. It’s also territory where major shifts, sometimes important shifts, take place.  Artistic flying without a net.

This concept applies to actors as well – very much so. Actors plan. We plan how it’s going to go. We create a roadmap for how our work will play out. We plan in an effort to satisfy what “they” want (the mythical “they”).  In all this planning,  many times we lose sight of what we want. One of the reasons I see real value for today’s actors studying improvisation at some point in their training is that improv, when it’s good, allows you to change the wrong note; to craft what comes after the wrong note into a new note, a dynamic note that propels the scene forward, the right note.

In the theatre this planning is normal and accepted. It’s called rehearsal! You have significant rehearsal time, and many opportunities to “lock it down.” In film and TV work you might meet the person you are to have a highly emotional scene with (and a life history together that has to be conveyed) for the first time in the make-up trailer at 6:30 am. Pretty soon you are off to the races together. There is scant rehearsal, little time to build a relationship with your cast mate – in short, little time to plan. It’s all quite fresh, sometimes terrifyingly so. Just remember:

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”

Perfection is rare in our world, and frankly not inherently interesting.  It’s the imperfect that draws us in, that makes film acting all the more visceral in it’s small detailed humanity. There are few wrong notes, if you remember Miles’ advice – only what I call “happy accidents”.


Disruptive artists are the breakers of rules, destroyers of dogma….innovators. They reshape the form. They reshape the norm.

Pablo Picasso – a traditionally trained artist who ended up seeing things in a totally unique way

Samuel Beckett – who reordered the molecular structure of how a play might be imagined

Louis Armstrong – jazz’s first important soloist, and creator of scat singing.

Anna Deveare Smith – created a unique new form of theatre that is rooted in the concept of documentary.

Orson Welles – writing, directing, and starring in “Citizen Kane” (as your first film) can only been seen as wildly disruptive

Richard Pryor –  known for uncompromising examinations of racism that reflected the times he lived in and his own rough and raw upbringing.

Salvador Dali – a major surrealist who combined superb traditional painting skills with visions and imagery from the subconscious.

Go ahead….make trouble.  Disrupt.  Give yourself permission to imagine what you do without parameters, without limits, and without worrying too much about the mythical “they”.

As the great Anna Deveare Smith says, “Be new. Be you.”