“I’m the lead idiot,” Bart Sumner said matter-of-factly when asked how he helps participants to get comfortable during his Healing Improv classes. “I lead them down the road to laughter with people who have similar problems and show them how easy it is to make a fool of themselves.
“It’s amazing what Healing Improv does for a wounded soul.”
Sumner is offering a free Healing Improv class as a part of 2018 LaughFest. He started his method over four years ago, after he realized that improv is what helped him through unfathomable grief in 2009 – the loss of his ten year old son, David, to a traumatic brain injury caused by a football accident.
A 30-year veteran of acting and improv, Sumner remembers his first days and months coping with such loss. “The only vacation I got from the grief is when I was on stage, because you are so in the moment,” he said.
Healing Improv involves a variety of word and number games played in a circle, so that no participants feel “as if they are performing,” Sumner explained. While the games are completely unrelated to grief, Sumner begins by giving everyone a chance to share why they are there. Then, he says he chooses not to dwell on the loss.
The simple goal of Healing Improv, Sumner explains, is to lessen the pain of grief through laughter and the focus that improv games demand. “Some dull the pain through drugs or alcohol. Improv numbs the pain through a natural means.”
While his approach is inclusive to anyone grieving, Sumner acknowledges that it might not be for everyone. “Grief is very individual. Therefore, no one should ever feel the obligation to stay.” However, he has also noticed from his experience “the people who want to leave may need it the most.”
Since launching Healing Improv as a tax-exempt charity, Sumner is a seasoned speaker at grief conferences and published Healing Improv: A Journey Through Grief to Laughter in 2014. He even received a $10,000 grant from Stephen Colbert in 2014 to continue his work with Healing Improv and hopes to do so indefinitely.
“It’s humbling to be able to aid others who are struggling with loss find some joy and laughter again, and in helping them I have helped myself on my own grief journey,” he said. “Knowing that sharing my grief of losing David helps others in grief, brings a small semblance of good out of his senseless death.”
Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids (1806 Bridge St. NW)
Free, Tuesday, March 13, at 6 p.m.
Dog Story Theater (7 Jefferson Ave. SE)
Free, Saturday, March 10, 10 a.m.
Free, Saturday, March 17, 10 a.m.