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  • Writer's pictureDrew Dotson

Profess yo'self

Semester. There was a time I used that word frequently, but it faded into oblivion until the past several months. Before you think I’m going back to school, I’m not (though, dang, was I an amazing test taker). This semester I’ve gone back to college in a different way — as a visiting scholar. Basically, a visiting scholar is temporarily employed by a university to teach (or do research) on a specific subject. My subject? Improv. My university? The University of Northern Iowa.

Though my formal improv training dates back to 2008, I’ve always been a bit of an improvisor. I’m that person who loves public speaking and even specialized in it while studying at Georgia State. I loved connecting with people by sharing stories that might inspire them to act, to reconsider, to reflect. So, while in the audience at an improv show at Whole World Theatre, my ears perked up at an announcement about signing up for classes.

My improv interest was a bit paradoxical at first because, despite my comfort in front of an audience, at the time I was suffering with extreme generalized anxiety. I’d recently graduated from college and was working full time. In addition to the typical "So, is this what adult life is like?" existential crisis, I grappled with recurring thoughts that I shouldn’t have lived to experience any of this. My overall stress and anxiety contributed to a health decline, and I found myself hospitalized. From the confines of my hospital room, I called and registered for an improv class.

The rest was history. I took the class for beginners, followed by the advanced class. I started performing on Thursday nights, then made my way up to Fridays and Saturdays. After gaining more experience, I began to lead rehearsals, emcee shows, and even teach the same classes that consummated my love for improv. Of the many hats I got to wear at the theatre, my favorite was teaching — introducing others to this amazing hobby that bettered my life. That’s even where I met Ramón. After almost 9 years at the theatre, I found myself struggling to stay healthy while balancing full-time work with improv. Something had to give. So, as difficult as it was, I retired from the funny business.

But my improv career didn’t end there. A former improv student reached out to gauge my interest in leading holistic improv therapy at a substance use rehabilitation facility. He told me he thought I’d be perfect for it because of my ability to "meet people where they are." I was overjoyed thinking about the therapeutic benefits of improv, knowing how much improv had helped me personally. I began leading improv sessions at one facility, then another. I loved seeing the clients enjoy themselves during what was likely one of the hardest chapters of their lives. Then, in-person programming was canceled due to COVID-19, and I sadly parted ways with improv once again.

Until recently. Now I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to continue sharing my passion for improv at UNI. My role is with the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, and I’ve had the privilege to work with students going into service-oriented fields. Last Friday, I led an hour-long applied improvisation session for people pursuing careers in Mental Health Counseling. It was glorious. I travel to Iowa later this month to lead some in-person sessions, and I can hardly contain my excitement.

So, back to that word: semester. Though I didn’t expect "semester" to get so much mileage in my mid-30s, I’m grateful it has. Improv taught me to yes-and — to accept what life brings my way and continue moving forward — and I love introducing the concept to others.

Male and female actor on stage, with female emcee sitting at a desk below
Proudly emceeing improv students at a graduation show


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