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June 7, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Matt Fotis has a chip on his shoulder. It took permanent residence when he didn’t make the top improv group at Monmouth College and instead joined the “B-team,” Scotch Tape. Although his position in the group didn’t stick for long (he made the main group the next year), his situation became a way to prove himself and is now a driving force in all he does.
After receiving his Ph.D. in theater from MU this year, Matt is now leaving for a full-time teaching position at Albright College in Reading, Penn. But MU Improv, the campus’ largest improvisational comedy group, will remain. Under Matt’s guidance, the group grew from a handful of curious students in 2009 to its cast of more than 30.
Matt’s approach to teaching and playwriting is grounded in the improvisational theater he did in Chicago, including studying at iO Chicago, where Mike Myers and Tina Fey also studied. Dillon Cassidy, president of MU Improv, says Matt is the only professor in the theater department to have begun his career with improv. Because of this, Dillon says improv colors the rest of Matt’s work.
But his success also extends into playwriting. In the past year alone, Matt, 32, was awarded the 2010-2011 Mark Twain Prize in comedic writing and saw two plays become national finalists at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C. This award is no laughing matter — only one playwright in the entire country is awarded the Mark Twain Prize each year. Matt is the only playwright ever to have three plays represented at the national festival in one year since the Kennedy Center was founded in 1971.
Matt’s theater career began 14 years ago, when a friend asked him to act in a 10-minute play he was directing. By the time the curtain closed, Matt, the young man who once scoffed at theater, was addicted.
After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in history and communication and theater arts, Matt moved to St. Paul, Minn. Three years later he returned to Illinois to get his master’s at Illinois State University. During his last semester, he married he long-time girlfriend, Jeanette. After graduation, the couple moved to Chicago, where Matt worked at a public relations firm as a business liaison.
The budding playwright was drawn to the program at MU because of its emphasis on both scholarly and creative work. Shortly after coming to MU, Matt founded MU Improv. The group doesn’t hold auditions; members perform as long as they came to rehearsal each week. This year, they rehearsed each Thursday and performed twice per month during the school year in the student center.
New improv leader Dillon says Matt has taught him everything he knows about improv and is more of a mentor than a teacher. Despite his relaxed, personable and “brilliant” approach to teaching, Matt can command authority. “A mentor is so much more personal; a mentor is a lot more invested in the student,” Dillon says. “I still look to him for advice regularly and plan on doing so even after he’s gone.”
To begin the daunting task of writing a play, Matt sits on a general idea for a few weeks and uses his background in improv as a basis. With notes from the pad he keeps on his nightstand, Matt usually writes the first draft of a play in a week or two. Then he revises until his wife finally agrees to read it. “He tries not to tell me very much before I read it,” she says. “A lot of things are witty and clever and have deeper meaning. Almost always, I am seeing it in my head happening, and that’s how I know it’s going to be something good.”
His play about two book pages 58&59 received national recognition from the American College Theater Festival in 2011. Although Matt jokes it’s unfortunate his best play is only 10 minutes long, he believes it packs multiple issues into a short and humorous scene. Matt’s play 58&59 was one of five national finalists for the Kennedy Center Prize out of the 960 entered. His one-act Nights on the Couch was also selected as a national finalist for the John Cauble Short Play Award.
Matt says he hates awards; he feels suddenly they make you “good.” He felt the pressure to live up to the hype when producing The Girl in the Cube, which made its debut at MU in November. The play was experimental and not what everyone expected from “the comedy guy.” But because this original work was first performed on MU’s campus, it gave both students and professors the opportunity to design every aspect of a play from its scenery to its costumes, without any performance precedents to uphold.
Matt says being a parent to Nils, 4; Hank, 2; and Malin, 1, has made all the extra things he does outside the home much more important. Matt will continue to follow his family’s philosophy: “Seriously, don’t take yourselves too seriously.”
Matt’s goal is to continue producing and publishing plays, although his playwriting endeavors in Columbia have been halted because of his new position as the assistant professor of theatre at Albright College, where the family will move in July.
Even though the Fotis clan will soon call Pennsylvania home, Matt promises they’ll be back to visit. In the meantime, a piece of Matt will be left behind with MU Improv as it continues to prepare for its first season under Dillon’s sole instruction. The upcoming season will begin in The Shack on MU’s campus with its first show on Aug. 23 and the annual Comedy Showcase on Sept. 4. With semimonthly performances, MU Improv will continue to allow more students to learn about theater and, most importantly, to have a good laugh.