An improv company welcomed an unlikely muse to their latest performance: Death.
The Experts, at Chicago’s iO Theater, allows leaders in a variety of professional fields to dictate each show’s comedic matter. On Thursday evening, performances revolved around terminal illness, artificial nutrition and even a killer monkey to help make end of life conversations more palatable.
“How many of you would choose to die in a hospital, in the intensive care unit maybe hooked up to a breathing machine with tubes and antibiotics? Well, 80 percent of people die in a hospital, many in similar situations,” said Dr. Julie Goldstein, a palliative care physician, clinical ethicist and the night’s featured expert. “Several decades ago, when you had a serious illness you were cured or died. Now, you are managed chronically over a long period of time and slowly deteriorate.”
The somber subject matter did not translate into subdued acting or quiet contemplation. Eight actors used chairs, cartoon voices and over-the-top characters to make death seem like a normal part of life, like a graduation or marriage.
In one outrageous moment, two friends used sign language to ask a monkey named Bubbles how he wished to die– he didn’t know, of course. Another scene involved a man and wife practicing how she would suffocate him with a pillow in case he became critically ill or incapacitated– he made it clear he wished to have sex before death, even if he were unconscious.
Cremains were fair game, too, as one sketch involved a Thanksgiving meal seasoned with grandmother’s ashes, not sage.
The situational humor, which occasionally flew off the rails and conflated the end of life with lack of pleasure, worked best when Goldstein steered the actors back to her prompt: the importance of frank conversation and advance health care planning.
The process of advance care planning– identifying end of life care wishes, communicating those wishes to key loved ones and putting them in the form of an advance directive– is associated with fewer hospitalizations, earlier hospice enrollment and fewer unnecessary and costly medical procedures in the last year of life.
At the end of the brisk 90-minute show, Goldstein handed out Power of Attorney for Health Care documents, as if they were goody bags.
“A good, solid plan is different for different people. What’s appropriate for a healthy adult is much different than what’s appropriate for an individual with a chronic condition and just starting to deteriorate.” Goldstein explained. “You can leave here with a completed form, and I can help you.”
At least a couple people took her up on that offer.
The Experts runs Thursdays at The Mission Theatre in iO. Learn more here