Sheena Agarwal is a fourth-year DMU osteopathic medical student with aspirations for a career in primary care and preventive medicine. But on a recent Saturday, she was “Jake,” a tobacco-chewing editor of NASCAR Illustrated; a tough attorney suing a cattle rancher on behalf of PETA; and a tornado-chaser trying to pluck Dorothy out of the sky.
Those and other roles are all in a night’s work for the improvisational comedy performer at West Des Moines’ Last Laugh Comedy Theater. She performs about once a month with three other members of the theater’s 25-member cast.
“When people laugh and smile, they find their inner happiness. Improv gives me the ability to share that,” she says. “I’m also learning about people — their mannerisms and body language.”
In Last Laugh’s short-form improv show, the performers play “games” — similar to TV’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — based on suggestions from the audience for their roles, settings and situations. Cast members rehearse to sharpen their skills and become comfortable with each other.
“It’s all teamwork, so you have to have trust and a very safe environment,” she says. “You need to listen and keep focused. That can be a challenge, but there’s also great reward in connecting.”
Honing those listening skills, creativity, collaboration, communication, self-confidence and trust will make her a better doctor, Agarwal says. In fact, she and Last Laugh founder, Josh Chamberlin, developed an improv workshop they’ve proposed to DMU as an elective to help students develop those abilities.
“I’ll be able to read my patients better in their physicality, voice and want, the three things we assign when building a character in improv,” she says. “I’ll be more comfortable talking with my patients and superiors. And — when appropriate — I might be able to come up with an entertaining way to educate a patient.”