Excerpted from "Life is at the Curb," Stroke Connection, September/October 2003,Ten minutes into his one-man show, John Kawie tells the story of a stroke survivor in his building in New York City. “The guy’s trying to hail a cab.” John imitates the survivor’s meek attempt.
It looks like someone just watching a car go by. He does it again.
“The guy is in the lobby doing this.” The audience laughs, and John says, “I tell him, ‘You can’t get a cab in here. You gotta go to the curb, man. Life is at the curb! Life is at the curb!” The audience breaks up.
This laughter, this making fun of another’s debilities, would seem cruel except for one fact: John Kawie is a stroke survivor himself.
A dissected carotid artery caused his stroke in November 1997, a week into his marriage to Marilyn. He’d been doing standup comedy in New York for the previous eight years, and his career was just beginning to see some light when the stroke put him in a wheelchair.
But John loved standup, so on Christmas day, less than two months after his stroke, he took a cab from the hospital where he was recovering to another hospital to do his act for a group of patients. “It was very emotional,” he recalls. “I was still in a wheelchair. When I got on stage, I completely forgot my act. It was depressing.”
He tried again at a comedy club in New York a few months later but his mind went blank once more. “After that I got really depressed because I thought I would never be able to do what I was passionate about.”
You have to be passionate to risk falling flat in front of a roomful of strangers, and John couldn’t shake his desire to make people laugh. He asked his psychologist about going back on stage. The counselor suggested John talk to his old acting coach, Joanna Beckson.
Although he was scared to call, she was very supportive when he told her he wanted to do a one-man show. Hebegan writing monologues, but when he would get to class to practice them, he would forget what he’d written.
“When you forget, it feeds on itself because the more often you forget, the more you think you’re going to forget, and the more you forget.” After several months of frustration, he called his coach to talk about his lack of progress.
“I was afraid Joanna would tell me to drop out, that I wasn’t going to make it. Instead she told me that I would just have to work differently than other people, and that was exactly right. I began to run the monologues over and over and over. I even recorded them and listened.” Eventually he was able to perform each monologue individually, but he was still forgetting some parts when he put them all together.
John joined forces with Jerry Diner, a classmate who wanted to be a director, and he solved the problem. At Jerry’s suggestion, John added deliberate pauses to his routine.
“I tell the audience that, since my stroke, sometimes my brain freezes,” John says. “That keeps them from getting uncomfortable when there’s dead air. The pauses really worked. It’s like a little joke on the audience. Now I have to act the pauses because I know the show and don’t forget, but they’re still effective.” He called the show “Brain Freeze.”
After more polishing in his acting workshop, John took it to different hospitals, to stroke and aphasia support groups as well as several rehab centers. He’s also done the show in theaters. This past summer (after we went to press), he performed “Brain Freeze” in the Fringe Festival in New York City, a venue that was sure to increase his visibility.
“When I first did it for stroke groups, I was nervous because I didn’t know how they’d take it. But many laughed till they cried,” John says. “They know the highs and lows firsthand — the anger, the loss, the frustrations. I was able to make them see what they go through every day and actually laugh at the situation."
“The show exposes the dark underbelly of rehab. They’d come up and say, ‘When I’m watching you, I’m watching me.’ That’s the biggest compliment.”
“Brain Freeze” is written as a two-part therapy session. In the first part John is talking one-on-one to his therapist, sharing his frustration, for instance, at trying to button his coat one-handed or depending on Post-It notes because his memory is shot.He recounts how the hospital sent a team to “stroke proof” his apartment by taping down rugs and moving furniture: “They put up so many bars in my bathroom, it’s like showering in a jungle gym. I call them the Cardiovascular Accident Feng Shui Stroke Team, or the CVAFSST for short.”
He shares bizarre experiences he’s had with healthcare attendants and includes touching lessons he learned from his friends in physical therapy. These are funny stories about frustration with his own disabilities and other people’s misunderstandings and insensitivities. He ends the first half of the show by checking the Post-It notes inside his vest. “Post-It notes are still my life,” he tells the audience. “I just want to make sure I didn’t forget anything.”
The second part of “Brain Freeze” is a group therapy session where John acts the parts of six characters. They’re all memorable, particularly Clarence, the hand puppet that speaks for one of the group members.
“Stroke survivors hear a lot of negativity, from healthcare people and others,” John says. “But they should remember that they are not limited by what other people say or think. I’m working in a field where physical perfection is very important, but I’ve broken that barrier with my show — I walk with a limp and my left arm is paralyzed.
“Before I started working on the show, I was adamant about physical therapy. They called me Stair Man because I never took the elevator. I wanted to return to running. I wanted to be physically perfect. But when I started the show, I let go of that obsession.
“I surrendered a little bit to the stroke. I realized I didn’t have to be perfect. The show has allowed me to put myself out there and not hide who I am. I’ve gotten unbelievable responses to the truthfulness of the show. That’s what I’m really proud of.”
John Kawie does what seems on its face to be impossible: He stands up in front of strangers and makes them laugh at what most would consider a devastating personal tragedy. It’s a risky business, but that’s life at the curb.
To read John's humor columns from Stroke Connection magazine visit our Life At The Curb archive.
For information on booking "Brain Freeze, " e-mail John Kawie at email@example.com or call his service number, 212-969-0542.