Dead Parents Society is exactly what it sounds like — oh, and it's pretty funny too
The sketch comedy revue brings people together through the shared experience of grief
I recently drove past my childhood home and was horrified to see that the new owners had let the front yard descend into a jungle-like chaos. I commented to a friend, "If my mom saw that, she would — " and before I could finish, I started laughing. "I was about to say she would die, but too late."
I lost my mum in 2015, when I was 25, and moments of dark humour — no matter how cringeworthy — helped lighten my grief. It's the same thing that inspired Toronto's newest comedy revue. Created by Shohana Sharmin, Dead Parents Society is a sketch revue written and performed by comedians who have lost a parent at a young age. Grief can feel extremely lonely, but as Sharmin learned through her personal experience and her new show, it can also bring people closer together.
Sharmin, who is part of the Not Oasis sketch comedy troupe, lost her mother to lung cancer in 2017. In the months after her mother's death, she says it was like "every feeling in the universe was just bubbling under you and you don't know what to do." So, she turned to her art.
"The only way I knew how to channel all those feelings and that energy was to try and make art out of it, and my art of choice has always been comedy," says Sharmin. But her first few attempts to find comedy in loss didn't work. "When you are writing from a place of just pure pain, what ends up on the paper isn't funny." So in the months following her mother's passing, Sharmin opened a word document and simply typed: "How do I make this funny?"
Mark Twain's adage, "Humour is tragedy plus time," proved true for her. It took two years to create humour from her personal tragedy, and the result is the Dead Parents Society. She pitched the show on March 11 — the anniversary of her mother's passing — and was shocked that everyone she approached, from the venue to the cast members to the show's award-winning director Kirsten Rasmussen, was immediately on board.
"I just knew that this was gonna be good; this was gonna be a thing that people will relate to," says Jackie Twomey, part of the Dead Parents Society cast and half of the comedy duo TwoSon. Twomey lost her father to cancer in 2015 when she was just 25, and like Sharmin, she used comedy as an outlet. "I had to make jokes to deal with it; that's just how I've always coped with things," she says.
While grief and comedy may seem contradictory for some, Dead Parents Society cast member Anne McMaster — who lost her father in 2003 — sees the parallels that explain why they go so well together. "Humour is tension, really," she says. "Grief is so much tension that builds up and builds up, and then there will be these moments of lightness and you'll laugh and it just feels like letting go of so much tension."
One such moment for McMaster came when she was visiting her father's memorial plaque. She opened her flip phone to take a photo and the screen said, "Say cheese!," prompting her to collapse in laughter in the cemetery.
For the rest of the cast, writing Dead Parents Society was a similar release. Twomey says that with their shared experience, the team laughed and cried together throughout the process. McMaster describes it as "a big sigh of relief." Though the revue was informed by the personal stories of the cast members, their aim was to make the show relatable for anyone, whether they've lost a loved one or simply been a support to someone else.
"I think of comedy and art in general as a tool. It's a tool we use to reflect on society and on our lives," says Sharmin. "So my goal for doing this show, really at the core of it all, was to just reflect on this common human experience that we all have."
Since the show was announced, the cast has been hearing from people who connect with the concept. When I told McMaster that I too had lost a parent at a young age, she welcomed me to the "Shit Club," the cast members' personal alternate title for the show. When her father passed away, McMaster's boss sat down with her, pulled out a bottle of whisky and extended that same invite. When Sharmin's mother passed away, McMaster welcomed her to the club as well.
Dead Parents Society, which premieres at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on November 1 and 2, is like a way of reaching out to other members. As McMaster says, "It's not [a club] that you want to be invited to, but you might as well take advantage of the membership perks, right?"
For Sharmin, creating a connection with even one person in the audience will make the entire show worth it. "Grief is the loneliest feeling in the world, and to be able to share that with someone and to see it on stage is a big thing," she says. "So I just hope people can relate and feel seen."
Dead Parents Society. November 1 and 2. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. buddiesinbadtimes.com