Andrew Aghapour, who is studying to receive his doctorate in religious studies and is a stand-up writing workshop teacher, said his students range from high school and college students to retirees to soccer moms. He also sees veteran comedians.
While religious studies and comedy may seem like an odd match, Aghapour said he’s noticed that the aspects of community and ritual and the set of values inherent in comedy theatre make it a supplement to some performer’s spiritual lives.
“I see the work that I do at DSI as a very nice extension of what I do in the classroom,” he said. “While it may seem like mere entertainment, it can be just as intellectual, just as difficult and just as transformative as the work that we do in a religious studies or a chemistry classroom.”
The classes cost $195 and are typically limited to fewer than 15 students. The cost can be offset through a student discount, internships with DSI or scholarship money from outside organizations. Enrolling in a class also comes with unlimited access to shows, Aghapour said.
Junior Heather Wilson, a member of UNC’s False Profits, took Aghapour’s Standup 101 class last summer. An English major and creative writing minor, Wilson received a writing scholarship that included a summer stipend to pursue comedy.
Wilson said she doesn’t know of anywhere else in the area that offers these kinds of classes.
“If I were to suggest comedy classes to someone, (DSI) would be the first thing off the tip of my tongue,” she said. “It’s definitely the place to go.”
Sophomore Sarah Spencer began taking classes at DSI last fall, and is currently in the 401-level improv class, the last in the improv cycle. This semester, Spencer became a programming intern for DSI, which means she can trade hours for tuition.
Spencer said she is generally one of the youngest in her classes but thinks the company’s relocation to West Franklin last fall will help attract more students.
Spencer wasn’t initially planning on taking a full cycle of classes, but as her passion for comedy grew, as well as her involvement in the DSI community, she kept coming back.
“I absolutely fell in love with DSI. The teachers of the classes are all incredible and the community of people that has been built there who just really, really want to be there ... are really passionate about it,” she said.
One of those teachers, Aghapour, became involved with DSI two years ago in January 2013. He is now part of Mister Diplomat, DSI’s flagship team, and is a teacher and coach for standup classes.
“I loved comedy, and I was really interested in seeing what this theater was all about,” he said.
“What I quickly discovered was this wasn’t just a theater but a rich and supportive community.”