Improv-ing the Inevitable

Improv-ing the Inevitable

Trigger warning: death, dying, bereavement, grief, medical procedure, COVID-19.

Death.

It happens to us all. And yet, none of us want to talk about it. It is, possibly, the last taboo in a lot of western society.

The funny thing is that taboo can also be used to describe something that is sacred. Perhaps we should think of death and dying more in those terms.

The current world-wide situation has thrown rather a large spotlight on the inescapable end that we’re all hurtling towards. Personally, I lost both of my Grandparents, I’ve seen friends lose family members, and I work for a start-up within the Death and Dying Space. Death is often at the forefront of my mind.

Navigating a global pandemic

The pandemic has thrown a huge spotlight on how unprepared for death most of us are. Although obviously there are many older and vulnerable people who are dying from Covid, who are perhaps more likely to have their affairs in order, there are also thousands of young, “healthy” people on death’s door, who are suddenly coming face to face with death. These people have not thought about end-of-life care. They haven’t had conversations about where they’d like to be, who they’d like to have around them, whether they want to be intubated, or resuscitated, or who gets their stuff. Obviously, the reality of dying of a highly contagious virus means that many of those decisions are being taken out of people’s hands anyway, but it also means that many families are having to make incredibly difficult decisions around whether medical professionals should do everything they can to keep someone alive (which means invasive, painful procedures, which most likely only prolong the inevitable) over the phone, in the middle of the night, unable to ask the person in question what they want.

I’m not writing this to scaremonger or be morbid. I just know that most people my age have probably never had these conversations.

Most people who are over about 75 probably knew at least one person who’d died by the time they were about 10. My Grannie’s sister died on their kitchen table, while my Grannie and her siblings were only tiny. People’s husbands, sons, lovers, friends died being sent off to fight in wars. At home, people died in air raids, from lack of proper nutrition, from infections, and from diseases that are now preventable. Infant mortality and death in childbirth were much higher. In short: death was simply another part of life. We knew what death looked like.

Acknowledging our own mortality

Nowadays, medicine has advanced to such a degree that it’s normal for people to live well into their 80s and 90s. It’s much more likely for someone to reach 20 or 30 before having to deal with someone they know dying. As a result, many people simply don’t face the idea of mortality. Often, when people who are dying try to talk about what they want at the end of life, their family and friends obfuscate, because they don’t want to face the reality of losing this person that they love. And, selfishly, they don’t want to have to think about their own death.

The truth is: we all die. Even with the incredible advances of modern medicine, this remains true. And in many ways, the current medicine that we have may prolong our lives further than we would want, if we understood the reality of what those extra days, weeks, or months might be like. For example: intubation (which will very probably happen if you have a severe bout of the ‘rona). This is a highly uncomfortable procedure. A tube is inserted via the mouth, and into the airway. When it’s done as part of a planned procedure, patients are usually under a general anaesthetic, and given muscle relaxants. When it’s done in an emergency (i.e., you’re dying because you can’t get enough oxygen by yourself), there is no time to anaesthetise or sedate you. It is a painful, traumatic, invasive experience. And if you’re at the point of emergency intubation, the likelihood is that you will still die anyway.  It’s relatively rare for people who are intubated in an emergency to survive. And do they have much quality of life?

Now, I think it’s important that people think, and I mean really think about whether they want this sort of procedure done to them at the end of their life, or whether they’d prefer to be made as comfortable as possible as they leave their body. It’s not a comfortable thought. And not a comfortable conversation to have with people who love you. But it’s an important one.

What does this have to do with improv?

I think improvisers are sometimes particularly guilty of an “out of sight out of mind” approach to… well, almost anything. We love to “start positive” and “be supportive” and say “yes, and”. We avoid the difficult subjects in our shows and rehearsals, we make things light, and fun, we dance around tough subjects. In our communities, we ignore issues; if someone is a creep, we say “oh he’s a nice guy, he’s just a bit awkward”, we publish diversity policies, but don’t do anything tangible to improve the experiences of BIPOC players, we allow the weird politics of the scene to decide who is and isn’t in the “in-crowd”, while saying that we “support everyone”. Improvisers market themselves as the nicest people on earth, but often that “niceness” is merely unwillingness to engage with difficult subjects, and a commitment to protecting difficult people, at the expense of those they victimise.

One of my favourite improv shows I’ve ever seen was Inbal Lori and Lee White at Sofia Improv Festival. They did a dark, disgusting show that involved a “Psycho”-style creepy mummy/son relationship, and Inbal playing a bloodthirsty dictator; it was deliciously horrible. Why was it so great? Because it wasn’t sickly-sweet, improv candyfloss. Don’t get me wrong; it was hysterically funny. But it wasn’t “nice”. Not even close. I loved every minute.

We encourage improvisers to find their inner child, but we also need to understand how to have a grown-up conversation. If a female colleague tells you someone has groped her; you must talk to her about it. And you must have the tough conversation about whether the perpetrator should be allowed back in your venue. If a BIPOC player tells you they don’t feel at home in your theatre you must have the conversation about why and do the work on changing that. If a disabled player tells you they can’t access your venue YOU MUST FIX THAT. In the same way that if someone you know is dying, you must have a conversation about how they want to go, before it’s too late for you to have it.

And for god’s sake, write a will! Even if you think it’s not worth it. Even if you only have a fiver to your name. It makes everyone’s lives easier.

For the record:

  • I want a non-religious funeral. I want everyone to get shitfaced and tell their funniest story about me (parent-friendly though, PLEASE). I want you all to dress in your nicest clothes, put on your best make-up, and look GOOD. I want party tunes, curated by Harry and Tom. I want to be cremated. I want you all to go to G-A-Y after it’s done and dance and drink and get into trouble.
  • I don’t want a huge amount of overly invasive medical intervention. If a doctor recommends you allow them to do whatever they can to make me comfortable, rather than intubating or anything else; do what they say will make me most comfortable. And get me the good drugs.
  • Donate my organs, if you can (LOL). Or donate my body to science, if you can.
  • I don’t have much in the way of money or stuff, but you’ll find my will in a yellow envelope in the big black folder in my cupboard. I’m splitting my money between Shelter, and my brother and sister, my bro can have my electronics (after you’ve wiped my internet history), and my sister can have whatever of my clothes and jewellery she wants: the rest send off to charity shops. Hazz gets first dibs on any leftover booze, and anything else can go to a charity shop.

I’ll be running a 4 week super-elective at The Nursery examining death, dying, and bereavement through the lens of improvisational theatre. The finite nature of improv is one of the huge parts of its appeal. After a period where we have all become more intimately aware of death, now seems a good time to explore our relationship with the end through art. If you’d like more information on the course, you can find it here.

Rhiannon Jenkins
rhiannonjenkins@live.co.uk

Improviser, Actor & Facilitator | Education Administrator at The Nursery (e) rhiannon@thenurserytheatre.com

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