Hart Health

Improv is so much more than comedy.

“For me, improv is life,” said Julie Cotton of Elkhart. “It’s the principles of ‘Yes, and…’ and ‘How do I make my scene partner look amazing?’ It’s bringing your unique geniuses together. It’s the perfect dance of flow and acceptance and giving.”

Julie is one-third of the improv musical group Hart Health. Her troupe-mates include Dave Asher, a Chicago-based musical director, and Carlos Rivera, a Chicago-based musical improviser. Though the group itself is new – they formed especially for Oaklawn’s Got Talent – together, they bring decades of performing experience.

Julie earned her undergrad in theater and then an MFA in acting from Rutgers University. She toured with a children’s theater company and taught for Rutgers and George Street Playhouse in New Jersey before going back to school to become a massage therapist. She continued her career in Florida – where she founded her company, Next Level Improv, which uses improv principles to help clients gain a deeper understanding of themselves and build strong relationships.

It was in Florida, about 10 years ago, that she met Carlos. He was active in south Florida’s improv scene, and they’d sometimes perform together. Around the same time, Julie completed some intensives at the iO Theater in Chicago. That’s where she met Dave – he was the musical director there for 15 years. The theater is known in the comedy world for its contributions to longform improvisation and helped launch the careers of comedians such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jason Sudeikis.

Julie moved to the Michiana area in 2017. She still owns Next Level Improv, as well as The Studio M62, a holistic wellness studio, and she’s been very involved in local organizations like the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce and Elkhart Rotary, where she currently serves as President.

When auditions for Oaklawn’s Got Talent opened this year, she asked Carlos and Dave if they’d be willing to form a group with her to compete. In true improv form, they said “yes.”

Not only is the event an opportunity to perform, have fun and bring joy to others, but it’s also a chance to support mental health and addiction treatment.

It’s something that hits particularly close to home for Julie, whose mother had bipolar disorder. She’s done her own healing work to address trauma from her childhood and understands how trauma can shape you in ways you don’t realize. Understanding those behaviors and defenses is key to having true agency and authority over your life, she says. She wants to help bring that to others, too.

“People are like, ‘You do so many things,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I don’t. I do one thing. I remind people of who they are, and I do that through different lenses. And laughter’s a great way to do that.”

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