Tragicomedia with improv performer, Mike Rose on loss after a freak accident

Improv performer, Mike RoseWhen an antique mirror “pretty much slices off” your nose, even an actor must stop pretending everything’s fine. How to transcend a freak accident by applying the rules of improv: this and more when Tragicomedia’s Nancy Gershman talks with LA native, Mike Rose: actor, writer and improv performer. Check Mike out on his website,

Ask yourself: Do I take away – or give happiness to people?
Don’t like your looks? Imagine after a freak accident 
Get your support system realistic so you get realistic
Hiding your messed up self stunts growth
The rules of good improv also apply to life
Make a big deal out of the smallest details in still photo
Your To Do List


Ask yourself: Do I take away – or give happiness to people?

“Ever wonder why you are the way you are? When I was 21, I decided to see a psychic in Greenwich Village. It was 4 in the morning but I remember her telling me that in a past life I was a mistress who slept with married men. “That life of mine” was all about taking happiness away from people. And yet here I am, a comedian, giving happiness to people and making them laugh.

That same year, a friend of mine got certified to do guided regressions so I decided to do a past life regression with her.  She basically talked me into a “state,” similar to being hypnotized.  All this “karmically relevant stuff” in my past life (the stuff which has the most to do with my life now) came up, including that I was a black woman named Eleanor. And I was gorgeous.

As I visualized with my eyes closed, my friend told me to “picture a map” and that’s when I realized I was drawn to the French quarter of New Orleans in the 40’s. She asked me to write my name down on a piece of paper – which revealed my name. She asked me to “look at myself in a mirror” to see if I noticed any imperfections or deformities. That’s when I saw a perfect black woman’s body looking back at me. Which is ironic because I’ve had a big issue all my life about Looking In The Mirror. Call them vanity issues or body dysmorphia – but what I see in the mirror every day was never satisfactory to me. And yet when I looked at myself in my former life, I was perfect.”

Don’t like how you look now? Imagine yourself after a freak accident

“Shortly after visiting that psychic, I was in an accident. My friend Heather had just moved into her new place, and hung up a heavy antique mirror with just string and a nail. All of a sudden, that mirror fell off the wall, shattered on my head, hit the bridge of my nose and pretty much peeled off my nose.  Needless to say, it was terribly traumatic and I suffered from PTSD as a consequence.

But this freak accident happened at a particular moment in my life when I could not have been happier! I had finished a national tour of a musical; just did a show at The Groundlings; owned a new car; had money in the bank; and was working quite a bit as a professional dancer. Then boom, this mirror falls on my head and pretty much ruins my life. I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism: all the mirrors which I had spent my life looking into — and now this mirror lands on my head and leaves me with a horrible scar!

I was in complete denial how this would affect me. Instead of dealing with it, I just buried myself in improv classes because I was an Actor, and that defined me in a very certain way.  I also spent time at the gym, compensating for my ugly face with a perfect body.

After my operation my nose looked like an inverted banana. The surgeon was very coarse and said, “You have to wait at least a year to heal, then maybe we can fix things here or there.” I left crying, sobbing to one particular friend (the only one who said how she really felt): “If this happened to me, I don’t know how I would be….” 

Encourage your support system to be realistic so you get realistic

“At first you don’t want to access your feelings at all. You want to deal with anything but the fate of this terrible tragedy. I also come from a family, I guess, which doesn’t really see the value in therapy.  So I continued to feel this tremendous loss: I thought everything was over and I was angry. It changed me a lot. Before that, I was like many comedians – the life of the party who wants everyone to like me. After the accident, I was so lost. I didn’t care if I was that person anymore, playing the clown. I became terribly depressed and isolated myself.

Heather came over the next day, but she didn’t say much, and I could see she had a lot of guilt. She tried to cheer me on and tell me everything would be ok but what I really wanted her to say was: “You’ve lost something and it’s terrible. It’s ok if you hate me. I need to pay for your nose job. I’ll find a way.”

Other friends, too, kept telling me it was going to be ok; that I’d be handsome. But what if it’s not going to be ok? Where will you be then? It’s irresponsible to tell someone who’s been through a traumatic event that it’s “going to be fine.” I need friends of mine to be realistic and say, “You’re going to have to get that nose fixed.” And it took me a while to be realistic, myself. I didn’t want people to say every time they met me, “What’s that on this guy’s nose??”

I believe we have a duty to make people feel ok with pain and anger. Everything you feel is ok. Don’t swallow your feelings as much as feel them.  Feel them fully. Look them in the eye. Be every bad feeling you have! You know how people say, “Get over it”? I prefer to say: Don’t get over it. Get through it.”

Hiding your messed up self stunts growth

“People are afraid of their authentic feelings. What you get from loss of this kind is growth. You know you’re growing when you start thinking, Oh I’m feeling this; what can that mean? If we can’t be sincere, ultimately we go crazy. And also, by allowing ourselves to feel those intense feelings, it’s more likely we’ll do something about it. So go ahead and cry all you want.  Visitors will look more upset … and so what!

In the end, my accident allowed me to be who I really was and to pursue what I really wanted. That’s when I started to ask myself: Am I really going to be a successful actor with my nose like this?

We’re always hearing “Don’t be a victim.” Well, I think that sometimes we are victims, and it’s ok. I had to allow myself to accept that something bad happened to me. Only then could I come to a point where it was time to move on and put fate into my own hands.

The rules of good improv also apply to life 

Rule #1: Try not to judge too harshly: people are just being who they are  

“Before I got my nose job, I went through a stage where I had unreasonable expectations of people to behave in a certain way when they saw my nose. If someone would ask me about my scar, I thought, How rude of them!  People should be considerate of others! I was over-sensitive. Now I think back that maybe that person was just curious. I’ve become a more diplomatic person.

Everyone comes from their own upbringing and experiences. Like in improv, as a character I can justify any response to anything. People say crazy things. And while it may seem selfish and insensitive, it’s just them being “in character.”

If your curiosity is grounded in sincerity, the audience is more likely to believe you.

Rule #2: Allow yourself to be affected

“Coming off as perfect in real life doesn’t make for good improv. Like trying to be “fine,” telling yourself, I’m not affected by this or that, even though you are. In improv, you have to let yourself be affected in order to move the story forward. In real life, if something is thrown at you – if you pretend not to be affected – you  prevent yourself from taking action.”

Rule #3:  The right way to “act” is to be true to yourself

“I’m always saying to my students, “How would you react?” Not how would anyone react, but “How would you react?” Whatever your choice is – whoever you are at the moment – is the right choice because it is what you feel. Actors are always trying to find the right way to respond … to act. We do the same thing in real life. We’re constantly trying to figure out the right way to behave.  But if we are true to ourselves – our own “character” – it will always be “right.” That’s better than trying to be something you’re not.”

Rule #4:  Take the blame (because later in life it will become great comedy)

“In real life, there’s always got to be somebody to take the blame and somebody who has a hard time taking blame. We’re taught to be beyond reproach.  In improv, actors taking the blame and being accountable makes for an entertaining scene. The vulnerability is endearing. The audience loves seeing the Bad Thing That’s Happened. The Fuck Up. Because in real life, we’re always trying not to look like we fucked up!”

Rule #5: Arguing is boring; move swiftly to resolution

“Why avoid argument? Because it’s boring. In real life, eventually one of you has to give in and the other guy has to arrive at an understanding. So it’s just a matter of who’s going to do it first. I see a value in coming to a resolution. Others may want to be stubborn or to be right. But if no one gives in, you’re stuck. Resolution equals progress.

That’s what I learned from improv. What I learned from my parents is that I really do not have to endure anything I don’t want to. I can choose between the thing I love and the thing I don’t.”

Make a big deal out of the smallest details in still photos

“What’s cool about the idea of making a picture from one’s memories is the feelings you get from that picture. And you can have fun making things mean more than they really mean.

For example, I like to build characters off of a picture. Like the photos in old Hollywood directories where you see all those actors from the 1950’s. As an improv guy, I’ll look at one of these pictures and pull something from a detail; things that other people might not think was a big deal. If someone is sitting with a certain posture, I’ll make sitting in that way a big deal in the hope of creating a great character. If their hair is arranged in a specific way – let’s say, very neat – than my character will be a very neat person.

I have a picture in my living room of my grandparents Valente and Refugio dancing. It shows them just from the mid-section up. They’re holding each other and looking at the camera. I just love it. They look so happy. It reminds me of my [Mexican] culture; the parties they’d have in their house – so much food, the music and the dancing. It reminds me of my mom and how much she looks like my grandma. My grandparents both died when I was very young so my memories of them all come from my mother’s stories.

If I were to make a picture of a memory, I would collage in all the professional headshots I had taken over the years to represent my pursuits, showing how I have changed over time.  I’d add in a picture of my mom– with her gorgeous big curly hair and tight work skirt.  (I feel like what my mom did in one lifetime would have taken others three lifetimes.) And a picture of my dad holding me as a baby. I’d build that picture with moments like these. It’s something I always think about.”

Your To Do List

1. Thank your parent(s) for their role modeling: Create an apples-to-apples “memory picture” that illustrates how much you value your parent(s) achievements. Find a favorite photo of your parent(s) when they were your present age or a little younger, or older. Then find another photo of yourself at the age you are now. But instead of just representing yourself with that smiling full length body.

Remember the role modeling they’ve passed down to you needn’t be solely about achievements. It could be a belief system about how to achieve balance. An ability to lead. Or fearlessness in the face of danger.

2. Identify a meaningful object that powerfully represents your own achievements – much like the “movie star” headshots Mike speaks about in his hypothetical memory picture.

3. Emphasize the physical similarities between you and your parent(s). Have a memory artist digitally place the two of you side by side, seemingly engaging with one another. Not only will the memory artist insure that the photographs you choose show off as much of the physical similarities  – in body type and facial traits – between you and your parent(s) … but they will also integrate the meaningful objects into the composition in the most seamless way possible.