As improvisers, expressing ourselves is what we do. We do not have a choice: We are born this way. It’s no accident we are drawn toward the performing arts: sketch, stand-up, improv, and acting. These are the way we express ourselves.
For me, the need to express myself is part of who I am at the core. It’s the thing that keeps me alive; it’s my oxygen. When others try to shut me down, they are suffocating me. When I’m told I can’t say something or I shouldn’t say something, I feel like I can’t breathe, like they are trying to kill a part of me.
For years, I never quite knew why I loved teaching improv so much, even after all these years, but something that happened last month made me realize it’s because it gives me the chance to encourage others to express themselves, and there is nothing that is more important to me.
Recently my world changed when my father died. A few months before my dad’s death, I had asked him how I could help him prepare for his death, and he told me to speak at his funeral and make it funny.
But after he actually died, my family did everything they could to prevent me from speaking at his funeral. My family tried to ignore me, guilt me and emotionally blackmail so I would not speak. I’m not sure what exactly they were afraid I would say, but they said things like, “We don’t trust you,” and “save your negativity for your blog.”
At the eleventh hour, the night before the funeral, a peace agreement was struck between me and my mom where she agreed that I would be speaking at the funeral along with my brother and my sister, and we would each get three minutes. Nine minutes total to sum up my dad’s 81 years of life.
When I got to the church in the morning, my pregnant wife, Lauren, and I were ignored by my family and then blindsided by the priest, who told me that the plans had changed and now nobody was going to speak at the funeral. My brother and sister gladly threw themselves under the bus so I would not speak, and of course, like was true during most of my childhood, my mom was nowhere be found.
To say I was angry was an understatement. I went ballistic, postal, into a full-on black-out-rage. I stood up on a wooden church pew and demanded to speak, and then began reading the eulogy I had prepared as people were still filing in for the funeral.
Out of nowhere, a stranger in a dark navy suit tackled me off the pew. I hit the ground and he would not let go of my legs. I heard one of my loving family members yell out “Call the police!” Some of my friends started chanting, “Let him speak! Let him speak!” The cops showed up, and the church now had the same hostile energy as a Trump rally.
The priest rushed over trying to calm me down asking me to come down off the pew, so we could talk. The choice for me was clear: Either I was going to speak or I was going to get arrested. It was the bravest, craziest and worst day of my life. More words were exchanged between me and the priest. I saw terror in peoples’ faces. I know I was scared shitless. The priest, either listening to God or fearing a riot, agreed I could speak. He gave me three minutes, and said I needed to speak right then, before the mass started, as people continued to pour into the church.
When they realized I was going to speak, my whole family, including all of my nieces and nephews, cleared out of the church like I was some sort of terrorist with a bomb.
Only one of my brothers stayed to listen as I hobbled up to podium to read my eulogy with the help of my friends and even Lauren’s parents joining me on the altar. I did the best I could as I try to read the eulogy. I had read it to Lauren earlier that morning at home and it had made both of us cry, but at this point, my heart was racing, my voice was hoarse from screaming, so let’s just say it did not have the same effect it did when I rehearsed it at home.
It’s been almost five weeks since the funeral where I created a scene in the same church where I had both my first communion and confirmation, and now apparently my bar mitzvah. I am still feeling shame, anger, hurt and deep sadness. I think I may be suffering the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am not only suffering trauma over that clusterfuck of my dad’s funeral, but I’m also suffering trauma for an entire life of not being allowed to express myself in my family.
But in the aftermath of that experience, I have discovered a new appreciation for what I do as an improv teacher. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to help people to get to express themselves. I have taken this for granted. As improvisers, the need to express ourselves is who we are. We don’t not need to apologize for it, only to nurture it, for what we have is a gift that is as precious as gold.