Inside Track: Hollywood talent uses improv to heal grief
Actor Bart Sumner founded a nonprofit to help others who have suffered the loss of a loved one.
This month marks six years since Bart Sumner’s son died in his arms.
David was 10, a healthy boy enjoying football practice while his father cheered him on from the sidelines. But suddenly David collapsed on the field from an acute subdural hematoma. Blood had seeped into his brain from a head injury, possibly from a hit or a fall.
It was a freak accident — every parent’s worst nightmare. That October afternoon in Simi Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles was the worst day of Bart Sumner’s life.
“We spent a couple of years after David died putting our lives back together and figuring out how to move forward.
“There was an opportunity with my wife’s company (Farmers Insurance Group) to engineer a transfer to a city called Grand Rapids. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I wanted to stop driving past that football field.”
After moving to Grand Rapids, Sumner found a way to channel his grief through the profession he’s been working in for years: acting and improvisation.
Although most people associate improv with entertainment — such as the popular television series “Whose Line is it Anyway?” — Sumner created a nonprofit that helps grieving and troubled people express their pain through laughter during free improvisation workshops.
The 501(c) is aptly named Healing Improv.
“People come in, and we share the stories of what we’re grieving with and then we play improv games. It’s all to get people involved, engaged and laughing at themselves and giving themselves permission to laugh again,” he said.
“I always have plenty of boxes of Kleenex around. Occasionally, someone will get emotional during the workshop, but once we get into the games, we don’t talk about the grief. It’s about making each other laugh.”
Sumner founded Healing Improv in July 2013. The nonprofit, which meets in places like Grand Rapids Civic Theatre or one of the Kent District Library branches, received national attention last January when it received a $10,000 grant from The Stephen Colbert AmeriCone Dream Fund.
“I’ve had people come up and say, ‘There’s people I’ve never seen smile or laugh, and I saw them do both tonight.’ You meet someone who lost their kid or husband four months ago, and … they share their tears … but after 90 minutes, they’re laughing and thanking you,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong — 10 minutes later, they may be in tears again in their car on the way home. That’s OK. Healing is a journey. Healing Improv is here to help start that. Tears and laughter are right next to each other.”
Sumner was born in New Jersey. He graduated from Rutgers University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts.
While in college, he spent a year with The Shoe String Players, a group that performed a mix of improv and children’s theater in schools around New Jersey, as well as in New York City and at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C.
That experience is “what set the fire of improv for me,” he said.
“Improv was fun. The power and creativity was in my hands, as opposed to getting cast by someone else to perform in their show and do the words they’ve already written,” he said.
“Comedy was flying everywhere, and it gave you the chance to comment on the world around you and make people laugh.”
After college, Sumner began training with what was then called The Groundlings East in New York City; later, its named changed to Gotham City Improv.
“I got involved in improv at a time when it was growing in popularity. It was a social shift,” he said.
“What happened was, “Saturday Night Live” started in 1975. It ushered in a counter-culture of sketch comedy. … There’s no doubt that comedy exploded in both stand-up and improv in the late 1980s. There were groups that started popping up all over the place.”
Sumner’s big break came a couple of years after college when he was hired in 1988 to act in an airline commercial. Although he was only seen in the commercial from the neck down, the role earned him a Screen Actors Guild card, and he went from “being someone who liked to act to being a professional who had a union behind him.”
“It redefined me in my head,” he said.
In 1990, Sumner and his writing partner and best friend, Steve Greenberg, moved to Los Angeles to try to make it big in Hollywood. Sumner was successful in getting jobs: His IMDB page lists 15 acting credits, three writing credits and one soundtrack credit. He still sometimes is recognized because of a small role he had in the Emmy-winning comedy series “Scrubs.”
Although he was eventually able to survive on his earnings, the L.A. lifestyle of trying to become a “movie star” is a difficult road, Sumner said.
“L.A. is insane. It’s like trying to win the lottery. You’re going to a place where everybody from every small town that’s ever existed is going to make their fame and fortune,” he said.
“Unlike New York City where everyone is well trained and pursuing the craft, L.A. is full of pretty people who think it’d be really cool to be on TV. … It’s much more chance-based success than it is craft-based success.”
Sumner and his wife, Leslie, and daughter, Abby, made the move to Grand Rapids in 2012. He founded Healing Improv the following year. He also began performing with Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and in 2014 helped create Rapid Delivery Improv, the theater’s new house improv team.
“There’s a swirling vortex of interest around improvisation right now that’s happened in Grand Rapids, and I think that’s because of the amount of people that are coming into Grand Rapids. I think it’s a wonderful city with great history, and exceedingly friendly to altruistic endeavors, whether it be ArtPrize or LaughFest,” he said.
“(Improv) is a unique craft in that it’s an art. But art does not pay well. …
“I think if you pursue (art) here in Grand Rapids, you have to be fulfilled by the art itself. … There are films that get made here that maybe get picked up outside of here … but this is a place that you come from in show business — it’s not a destination. And that’s not a putdown by any means, but the amount of paid performance here is not what it is in the big cities.”
As he continues to focus on growing the improv talent in Grand Rapids, Sumner has found that, in a way, he’s been growing too. It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine, and Healing Improv is a testament to that, but according to Sumner, helping others also is pretty good medicine.
“As I worked with Civic and had some distance from L.A. and what had happened with David, I started to realize one of the things that helped me get through losing David was my improv,” he said. “It helped provide an emotional vacation while on stage.”
“It’s fascinating that after spending more than 25 years trying to get paid just to be a professional performer … suddenly, I had another purpose that I never saw coming.”
“Life happens and, to move forward, no matter what happens in life, you have to use all of you to find that way forward. It gives me great satisfaction to know I’m helping someone through the dark tunnel of grief that I’ve been through,” he said.
“Sharing your story helps, no matter who you’re sharing it with. Seeing that it relieves someone else of the pain and suffering they’re going through helps. Helping others helps yourself.”