Actor starts nonprofit that uses improv to cope with grief
Today marks the four-year anniversary of the death of alumnus Bart Sumner’s son David, who died at age 10 when he popped a blood vessel in his brain during football practice.
But for Sumner, today also marks a time for new beginnings. His nonprofit, Healing Improv, will host its first improvisational healing session tonight at the Civic Theater in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Sumner said no feeling is comparable to that of losing a child.
“You never get over it,” he said. “It’s learning to live with that loss and moving forward.”
Yet as an actor, Sumner discovered that taking the stage worked as a coping mechanism and helped him move forward. To help others manage their grief through acting, laughing and bonding, he founded Healing Improv in July.
“This is my way of paying tribute to him as well as my way of making sense out of all the craziness,” he said. “I’m trying to use what I’ve been doing for 25 years to help others that are struggling and finding a way forward after a loss like that.”
Sumner graduated from Rutgers College in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. After graduating, he started working for the east coast branch of Los Angeles’ improvisational school, The Groundlings.
Known today as Gotham City Improv, the company launched the careers of many famous actors, including Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy and Kristin Wiig.
“Groundlings taught me how to write,” he said. “I’m a produced screenwriter. I’ve had one movie made that I wrote, and I’ve written television and other things, and it’s Groundlings that really allowed me to be able to do everything I have done the past 25 years.”
Beginning his work in New York, he eventually moved to Los Angeles while continuing to work in acting. Sumner recently moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. after living in California for 21 years.
The Grand Rapids community gave Sumner the motivation to begin this healing organization. Once Sumner became involved in the town’s theater community, he said he knew he needed to use his talents to help others in grief.
“Once I began theater in Grand Rapids and really began to understand the lay of the land, I realized that this is something I could do to help people get through the nightmare we’ve been through,” he said.
In joining the theater community, Sumner learned that he was not alone in his loss. Working on the set of “A Christmas Carol” last holiday season, Pastor Steve Place of Mosaic Church discovered that he and Sumner shared more than just a love for acting.
“One day during rehearsal, Bart wore a shirt with his son’s picture on it, so I asked him to tell me the story,” Place said. “It so happened that I was wearing a memorial shirt for my son, who passed away five years ago this November.”
This initiated a bond between the two men that developed beyond the stage, so Sumner inviting Place to join the Board of Directors for Healing Improv.
“He needed a board member and asked me to come alongside him,” Place said. “One of the gifts we have as actors is to give people the ability to laugh, and he thought we could use improv to make that happen. I was very honored to be involved.”
Other members of Healing Improv’s board of directors have also experienced moments of grief. This includes Nancy Brozek, director of development and community relations at Civic Theater.
“I do the media for productions at Civic Theater, so I got to know Bart very well once he joined the theater community about a year ago,” Brozek said, “In my personal life, I have dealt with grief. My daughter is a cancer survivor, so I was eager to help Bart in any way that I could.”
Sumner believes that the sense of community and shared grief will aid people in learning how to deal with the loss of a loved one.
“One of the things that helped me most was knowing that there were other people who have been down the same dark path,” he said, “That’s part of what Healing Improv is about — that a room full of people in grief can laugh and reconnect on different levels, sort of giving people permission to get on with life.”
The free session that Healing Improv will host tonight will be the first of many to come. Sumner has two sessions scheduled for the month of November. One session will specifically serve teenagers ages 13 to 17 who have lost a loved one. Sumner said having a separate session for teens is important because they deal with grief in a different way from adults.
“I’ve seen improv change people,” he said. “It works for both experienced performers and for people who have never been on stage, but it’s not about performing. It’s about listening, getting out of your head and giving yourself the chance to stop being consumed by grief.”
Both Sumner and Place believe improv grants people the confidence to allow them to enjoy themselves.
“I’m hoping this will give people permission to laugh,” Place said. “I really think laughter is a healer. It feels like you’re washing away all burdens when you laugh, even when you cry. It’s a catharsis.”
Tonight’s session meeting will host 15 to 20 guests. Sumner thinks a group this size will most effectively enable people to interact with one another on very personal levels.
“I don’t expect there’ll be no tears from me or other people, but that’s what we’re after,” he said. “We’re after helping people to be open with their emotions and deal with sadness. It’s about finding a place to categorize or fit the grief into your life so you can move forward.”