Math professor brings joy to Cedar Valley through improv

UNI math professor Doug Shaw is also involved with improv theatre around the community.

Alex Finn, Guest Writer

For the last 22 years, Douglas J. Shaw has been a professor of mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa. With a Ph.D. and a postdoc in Mathematics, Shaw is a trusted professor at UNI with deep roots running through the university and surrounding community. Along with being a professor in mathematics, he’s instructed cornerstone, theater department classes, the presidential scholar’s program, and holds workshops with the college of business; Shaw is also a former member of the Cedar Falls school board.

Shaw approaches teaching with an innovative method of incorporating improvisation into his teachings. Improvisation, meaning simply to have the ability to perform without preparation, seems like a simple concept, however, you can train your mind to perform better in this way. Shaw has received many high praises from former students for being quick to help with tangible advice to help them succeed.

Upon moving to Cedar Falls from Minneapolis where Shaw had been taking improv classes, teaching improv and actively performing in a variety show. Shaw was disappointed in the lack of representation the improv community had in the surrounding area upon his arrival in 1999. With a burning desire to bring improvisation to Cedar Falls, Shaw recruited a few friends to help. Paul Siddens, a professor of speech communication at UNI, and Shaw’s wife Laurel, assisted in auditioning an improv troupe by the name of Half-Masted.

Half-Masted, and its initial 15 members went on to be successful with the help of the improv teaching’s of Shaw. The team performed free shows all over the Cedar Valley and brought joy and laughter to the community. However, as of this date the team has dispersed and former members have gone onto other success in theater.

A few former members of the troupe went onto teaching and realized exactly how important improv was in their classroom and gave Shaw a bright idea.

Upon some more research, Shaw discovered an entire branch of improv called applied improvisation. This technique involves using improv theater techniques in a non-theatre context. Now, Shaw travels and holds workshops that communicate these teachings to a variety of audiences. However, with COVID-19 restricting many gatherings this last year, many of the workshops were canceled.

Shaw began improvising in Ann Arbor, MI, where he was part of a book exchange where people talked, and exchanged their favorite books. A member of the group, Dick Hoogistegger, suggested a book called “Impro by Keith Johnstone.’”Shaw read the book and was curious, he inquired further about what improv was like, and his friend convinced him to give it a shot.

In Ann Arbor, Shaw began experimenting with a team of six members and loved it. He briefly experimented with improv in Ann Arbor before he moved to Minneapolis and began taking improv classes. One day, Shaw’s improv coach gathered everyone around and asked for their inspiration to begin the hobby. Shaw explained that his old friend Dick Hoogistegger had lent him a book called  ‘impro by Keith Johnstone’ to which his improv coach responded, “I lent Dick Hoogistegger that book back in Ann Arbor.” Shaw was astonished by the coincidence of the book coming full circle back to its original owner.

To this day, you can find Shaw in Wright Hall where he teaches math courses to eager students. Shaw is still passionate about the importance of improv. Shaw holds improv workshops for the on campus improv team “Some Assembly Required,” and various other age groups interested in the hobby. 

Shaw recites his experience at UNI fondly, “No other university in the world would be so willing to let me explore so many different aspects of my discipline, not only do they let me, they show appreciation, I feel valued for the fact that I do different things.”