An improv teacher's legacy

Last Sunday was the three-year anniversary of the death of Mary Scruggs. Mary was head of the writing program at Second City. She was a brilliant improv teacher and a gifted writer.

I remember when I heard that she had died, I was floored. I was in the suburbs about to teach a workshop for a group of writers when the president of the organization pulled me aside and said: “Do you know Mary Scruggs?”

“Yes,” I said, anticipating he was going to say his son had taken a class from her and loved it.

“Did you know she died?” he asked.

“Huh?” I replied. I stared at him like I had been hit by a brick on the side of my head.

“It was in the paper this morning,” he said as he handed me her obituary that he had torn out of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mary was only 46 years old when she died suddenly, leaving a husband, a teenage son, a sister, friends and hundreds of students whom she had taught behind.

I couldn’t believe it. And on top of it, I had only five minutes before I had to get up and teach 30 people how to play for two and a
half hours.

I didn’t know Mary well, but I had known her through her reputation and in passing when I taught at Second City. I had called her a month before to get some help in writing a book, and I found her to be very encouraging, direct and generous with her advice. Like all brilliant improv teachers, she made you look at things differently, and I was planning to call her again to follow up on one of the new ideas she had inspired.

It was that phone call that had made me feel connected to her — that and Second City, because despite all its dysfunction, if you have
worked there in any capacity, you feel like you’re part of the family.

Her funeral was on one of those cold, gray January Chicago mornings that you never get used to no matter how long you live here. The memorial service was at an old musty funeral parlor on Western Avenue on the northwest side of the city. The place was jammed with friends, family, teachers and, most impressively, her students. The lucky ones got to stand; others squeezed themselves in the doorways or jammed into nearby rooms with bad acoustics.

Her husband, her sister, her friends and people she had worked with came up to the podium one by one  sharing stories about Mary,
capturing her personality, her gifts and what she had meant to them. Her sister came to the podium speaking in a cadence very similar to Mary’s, telling the story of how as kids, they created skits on their pink canopy bed, and how they had made a commitment to play at a very early age.

Tears flowed uncontrollably. I thought of the Studs Terkel quote when he was asked what the meaning of life was, and he said “To make a dent,” and how she had accomplished that at 46. Her funeral service was a thing of beauty, an incredible tribute.

I am glad I attended because it was good to see for myself what a huge contribution an improv teacher can make in other people’s lives. It has always been easier for me to see the value in others than I see in myself, and that day, I could not only see all of the wonderful things that everyone saw in Mary, but I also had hope that one day I would be able to see wonderful things in myself .

Often I whine to my wife, Lauren, about my career and she will say, “Can’t you see how gifted of a teacher you are?” I cannot hear it. I
definitely cannot feel it. I don’t want to. I think unless I am a big TV star or movie star I am worthless — anything else in between does
not count.

I remember talking to Tim O’Malley years ago about this subject, and he said something to me from one of my favorite improvisers, Dave Pasquesi: “You can influence more people in the classroom than on the set of a TV show.” I had shrugged that off, but Mary’s funeral made me think he might be right.

In the Chicago improv community, when one of the good ones goes, we all feel it. We take it hard. Especially someone like Mary. It leaves a gaping hole, a giant crater. Like when Martin DeMatt or Del Close died, everyone realized that no one will ever be able to fill their shoes. Improv teachers who have been influenced by Mary will find the elements of Mary that speak to them and carry on her work. The ones who have already been teaching according to the gospel of Mary will find new discoveries and will continue to invoke her name in their classroom. This will be part of Mary’s legacy, a teacher’s legacy and nothing is more of a fitting tribute to a great teacher than the ability to inspire even when you’re gone.

Here’s hoping we all get the opportunity to inspire others, including me.