Comedy Improv Funeral
Updated: Sep 26, 2020
You might think that a funeral is a completely inappropriate place for a comedy improv performance. But you might be wrong. Because there we were, three middle aged improvisors, scared out of our minds that this was just…well…going to turn out so badly and yet determined to show up, be present, and say yes to this moment.
The exquisite joy of improv was first revealed to me by my high school theater teacher, Mia Fazio Truxaw. She taught Viola Spolin’s theater games - the brilliant gateway into releasing the intuitive in all of us. I was hooked from day one. A structured way to play, invent, discover, create and laugh? Yes, please. While I didn’t necessarily understand the deeper lessons of improv at the age of 15, I instinctively knew this was a form that called to me and suited my very nature. Over the course of the next 40 years, I found myself drawn to performing improv, taking classes in improv, teaching improv to all ages and using it to develop entire plays with children and teens. Now some of you may be thinking “what’s to learn about improv? You just get up there and make shit up.” But the truth is there is a lot of learning as well as unlearning necessary to be able to make that shit up. Or at the least, to make that shit interesting and worth spending 15 bucks on for an evening’s entertainment.
One of the first things you have to unlearn is our natural, human need to protect ourselves in scary situations (like being onstage in front of strangers) which can cause us to resist the unknown, to say ‘no’ to what is offered to us. For example, if you and I were doing a scene and I open with “Such a lovely sunny day” and you respond with “No it’s not, it’s raining,” we might have a hard time moving forward because from the start we aren’t sharing the same reality. You have effectively said ‘no’ to my offering.
What we’re talking about here is fear. Keith Johnstone, a brilliant improv teacher, talked about how we make choices out of fear onstage as a way of trying to take control of the situation. But so much is out of our control, both on and off stage. If fear is guiding our choices, we will probably make some pretty negative choices. How much more glorious is it to leap into the unknown and say ‘yes’ and discover together the characters, feelings and stories that have never been seen before? This is one of the foundations of improv.
Jim was a fan of our middle-aged women’s improv troupe. He fought his cancer for several years until, finally, he decided to enter hospice for the end of his life. While in hospice, he asked us to perform a show for him and an invited audience of friends and family in the hospice facility. You might think that a hospice is a completely inappropriate place for a comedy improv performance. And you might be right about that one. It wasn’t a complete disaster, it’s just that it was so very hard for those present to laugh about anything, knowing that this precious person was in the process of leaving. So when Jim’s wife, Anna, called to ask us to perform improv at his funeral, we were, as you can imagine, hesitant to say ‘yes’ right away. She explained that this was Jim's idea. In a gesture of love and playfulness, Jim wanted his memorial service to include memories of laughter for his family and friends. And so, Laura, Moe and I, despite the fear that this could go wrong in so many ways, said yes.
In preparation for performing improv at his funeral (which, when I say it out loud, still gives me pause), I asked Anna to gather what we came to call ‘Jim Moments’ to use as inspiration for our work. Certain beloved friends and family members were asked ahead of time to come up with a memory of a moment with Jim that was precious to them, emblematic of who Jim was, a reflection of joy. At a certain point in the ceremony, each would stand and speak their piece. Laura, Moe and I would be hearing them for the first time during the ceremony and then, using them for our raw material, create a series of short scenes. In our meeting before the funeral, Anna had told us the charming story of how she and Jim first met. This was the only real biographical material we had ahead of time.
So, there we were, in a huge, airy barn space, necessary because this man was so well loved, quaking in our sandals and convinced that we were about to either ruin this ceremony or, if we were lucky, survive it and be forgotten. Fortunately for us, we were a tight knit trio with absolute trust in each other’s abilities so we knew whatever happened, we would fail or succeed together.
And saying yes despite your fear is powerful. We listened carefully to the ‘Jim Moments’ and then got up and performed a series of scenes incorporating the love and memories, amplifying the humor, the community of mourners laughing, crying, and appreciating every scene.
Then Laura, brilliant Laura, initiated a scene with me that I quickly realized was taking us back to the moment Anna had told us about, when she and Jim first met. There’s a critical point in the scene, when Jim sweetly notices Anna has a post-it note stuck to the back of her skirt. When we played out this moment, Anna and their three children, sitting in the front row, burst into the laughter of recognition, mixed equally with their tears of loss. Catharsis. A fitting way to end our contribution.
In that moment I felt as completely as I ever have the magic of improv to not only give us a good laugh, but to create stories that comfort and connect, the sense of strength that comes from walking straight into your fear and the power of saying ‘yes.’
by Christine Stevens