Is denial born of excess optimism? Can visualizing yourself in the improv game, Hitchhiker lead to actual reconciliation? This and more when Tragicomedia’s Nancy Gershman talks with Marvin Stottlemire, PhD, JD: improvisational actor in Topeka Civic Theatre’s Laugh Lines and founder of Senior Class, an improv comedy company for actors age 55+. Marvin draws on his experience – as a lawyer and professor; and survivor of a heart attack, bladder and prostate cancer – to provide improv-based training to conferences and organizations. Visit Marvin on his website, Laugh2Learn.com.Laugh or cry? An instant way to decide Drama Queens realize they’re mortal faster than Macho Men When you don’t know what to do, call mom It’s tough booking a comedy act for your funeral A minute into a highly stressful situation and a joke is born The Dead Guy’s dead so entertain mourners as you see fit Keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole How to counter the thought: “He’s dead to me” Improv a scene in your head where conflict resolves comically Your To Do List
“My father, Eldon, was a member of what was known as the Greatest Generation. A big part of it was that he was “Mr. Macho Man.” Eldon was quite proud of his masculinity. But later in life he was diagnosed with prostate cancer (which became multiple myeloma and eventually took his life). When he was already pretty sick, the doctor treating him told him “the only way we can slow the progress of this cancer is treating you with female hormones — or castration.” Well. My mother and sister and father decided to go out to eat after that. With the doctor’s advice being the elephant in the room, my sister and mother start talking about what they’d take to the church social. Eldon turned to them and said in a high feminine voice, “I could bake a cayyyy-ke!” Much later I asked my Dad about that. “How did you manage to make a joke about being castrated?” and he said to me, “Son, your mother and I have discovered that there are some things in life that you either have to laugh or cry about, and we think laughter is better.” Here’s me, with enough schooling to cause cancer in lab rats, and Dad, a guy who hadn’t even finished high school providing me with one of the most important lessons of my life.”
“In 1996 I was performing improv with Laughing Matters (now Laugh Lines) and I had a heart attack on stage teaching a poodle how to tap dance. It was an improv game called “uncontrollable body” in which one actor stands behind the other; the Actor-in-Back becoming his arms while the Actor-in- Front speaks, trying to guess what the Actor-in-Back is doing. When we got to the green room at intermission, I was white as a sheet, perspiration dripping from my beard and I was becoming incredibly uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that I could hardly stand. I asked if anybody could get me some antacid. I didn’t realize it then but denial is a common side effect of heart attack. When I eventually got to the emergency room the doctor said, “Yeah, this is not heartburn, this is a heart attack.” And I said, “do what you’ve got to do because I’m going to NYC tomorrow.” At intermission I went to the hospital still in very deep denial. The cardiologist looked at the EKG and said, ”Get him to the Cath Lab, stat!” In other words, get him into treatment now; we don’t have any time to lose. I guess it was at that moment I figured out we are all mortal and that this might be a one-way trip. I told my family goodbye with the understanding that this could really be goodbye. My observation 17 years later after a balloon angioplasty and a stent is that anytime you are extremely ill, your focus by nature becomes self-centered. I know other people – people with mental illness – they tend to become rather self-centered too.”
“Women who hear my story always like this part. My son, Joel was also in the comedy company at that time and sees that I am too sick to do the second half of the show, obviously. So he tells the other members of the comedy company to go finish the show and he’ll stay with me. Picture two grown men; with the 26-year old telling the 56-year old having a heart attack: “I’m calling Mom.” If that were not enough, we did something else really stupid. I let my son drive me to the emergency room. Here’s why it’s stupid. If you try to drive a person to an emergency room who is suffering from an infarction, what are you going to do when he’s code blue? Perhaps denial comes from a place where our instinct is more optimistic than it should be. We believe things are going to be ok; that we’re strong and independent. Even though I was faced with evidence beyond my ability to cope, I found it awfully hard to surrender and acknowledge that I was in serious trouble. The really powerful lesson to draw here is, I don’t care how strong your sense of humor is (or optimism)—but there are times when you must seek help. Coronary infarctions are one and severe mental illness is another. You can’t treat these yourself. On the other hand, if heart attacks weren’t supposed to be funny, why do they call them in-FART-shuns?”
“I remember this maintenance man we had at the theatre – Guy Forbes. He was gay, with not much family (or a family who didn’t accept him much at all). When Guy died – most of Laugh Lines went to his funeral because everybody loved Guy. What we encountered was not one, not two, not three, but four preachers! The service lasted forever and they hardly said a word about Guy! They also had the nerve to call all of us to “give our hearts to Jesus;” to bow our heads and close our eyes. Who knows; I think some of these preachers were unemployed and needed an opportunity to preach that week! Afterwards, when we were talking about what we’d like our funerals to be like, I said I wanted Laugh Lines to perform at my service. Without missing a beat, the director of Laugh Lines turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, Marvin. We’re going to be busy that night.”
“Laughter is a reset button for stress and grief. It undoes what stress and grief do to us. When you think about all the physical manifestations of stress and laughter, it’s about opposites all the way. I like to point out that after a very, very stressful situation it’s not long before it becomes funny. I once worked as a logger in Oregon. We had a close call with rolling logs but no one was seriously hurt. Within a minute I heard one guy tell another: “Bet you’re going to have to go home and change your pants!”
“At my mother’s memorial service, we invited people to come up and share memories of Mom. I chose to retell one of Mom’s favorite jokes because she liked telling jokes. What if someone who dies was humorless? Should humor still be a part of the memorial service? This is my take. The dead guy’s dead and life is for the living! I think you should do whatever is best for the people who remain dealing with their grief. And I think you should do that regardless of whether the dead person would want you to or not.”
“It’s a part of our Western culture to be ashamed of being emotional. In presentations I sometimes talk about how we don’t deal with anger because we deny it. It’s the same with grief. When terrible things happen to you – you lose a loved one, have a divorce, your dog dies – you have to accept and embrace the grief; live through it and come out laughing on the other side. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells the story how nearly naked, starved, and digging in a ditch he was still making jokes. Think about it. Viktor and his companions could laugh even under those circumstances, when there was nothing to lose and nothing else to do but laugh … The best words of wisdom I ever read were on the wall of a donut shop in 1960:
As you go through life, my friend, whatever be your goal, Keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole!
My feeling is: cry, let it go and move on. You can’t let it dominate your life. In the darkest hour there is always donut and always hole.”
“My son has bipolar disorder. For years he was extremely successful; took his medication regularly and even wrote a book about it. Six years ago he went off his meds, got onto a manic phase where he was all knowledgeable and all knowing and re-diagnosed himself as being PTSD as a result of abuse by his parents. Now he has shut us completely out of his life. Not only have we lost contact, we’ve lost a son. A son who hates you can be worse than losing a son in Afghanistan. Sometimes on Father’s Day and Christmas, I let the grief in. I experience it and then put it away and think about all the beautiful things in my life: my other son, my daughters-in-law, my grandchildren, my wife, my work. There’s so much donut in my life to focus on. I don’t want my broken heart to be the center of my life. Beauty should be the center of my life. Although when someone hits you with a hammer, whether they meant to or not, it still hurts.”
“For our 45th wedding anniversary I made my wife a memory book called The First 45.When I saw pictures of our whole family – with both our sons – it was really hard but I still put those pictures in the book because that was our life. One of the things that puzzle me is why when I see pictures of my estranged son my mind turns to feelings of loss rather than remembering the good times. We had good times together! He was even in that comedy company with me.
So the idea of a memory artist creating an artificial memory I think could be very healing for someone like myself. In improv, we have a game we call “Hitchhiker.” While the “Driver” is out of the room, audience members suggest character ideas for the hitchhikers as well as the things that are supposed to be wrong with them. The Driver then comes back on stage, picks up the hitchhikers (played by actors) and has to figure out from their behavior who they are and what’s wrong with them. I see myself being the Driver, picking up my son who is “playing” a boy who thinks he’s been abused by his parents and is now “acting” out that role.
It could be very funny. Just as the “Hitchhikers” are actors portraying imaginary characters, having my son act out an imaginary event could be cathartic. Making comedy on stage together again. Wow! Thinking about my son and I being on stage together again; I feel a sense of comfort just thinking about that. I think that would be do-able.“
1. Engage in a thought experiment. Who are you estranged from? Focus for a moment on the one activity you know for certain always brought a smile to this estranged family member or friend. Now, for experimentation sake, visualize yourself engaging in that activity with this person …
2. Flesh out the scenario visually. Find someone you feel comfortable enough to talk through the scenario with you. This is theater, after all, and you’re both director and actor! Have them ask you all sorts of questions so that by the time you’re through, you have a clear picture of what each of you are wearing, carrying, playing with, etc. At this point you might even want a memory artist to digitally create the illusion with actual photographs, augmented by her own imagery or from a photo search. Then you’ll have something tangible to hold in your hands; a “reality” which you can keep tweaking.
3. Picture a conversation that’s larger than life. For example, if you’re playing a game with each other, really bring out each other’s playfulness. If you’re enjoying a gourmet meal together, see yourselves describing every mouthful or making distinct, over the top sounds of contentment .
If you’re giggling already, the experiment is working.