The courage to take risks

Swipe Right Melissa Dana Derek Gina
Melissa Holman-Kursky started improvising almost 20 years ago. “It’s given me a home and community,” she said. “It’s given me courage to take risks and to be resilient in the face of failure.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from improv, it’s the courage to take risks. The courage jump into situations that may scare you. I remember one scene where two of my scene partners were talking about a rat in their home. So, I decide to jump in the scene as the rat (basically, I just crawled on the floor the entire time).

Anyways, let’s meet Melissa Holman-Kursky, an improviser, coach and festival producer from San Francisco. Melissa is part of the artistic team behind Un-Scripted Theater Company in downtown San Francisco. She is also the co-founder and executive producer of the West Coast Musical Improv Festival. We caught about up about how she got into improv and how it gave her the courage the take risks…and her husband!

How did you get into improv? 

It was actually an awesome lesson in what can happen when you fail. I had never thought of doing improv in my life. I was a freshman at Tufts University right outside Boston. I was a drama major and mainly interested in scripted theatre and musicals – but to my abject horror (ah, the drama of being 18!), I wasn’t cast in the university’s department show that fall. I had seen the improv troupe Cheap Sox perform, and thought they were amazing, but didn’t think I could possibly do what they did. But, I was in such a fatalistic mood over not being cast that I decided, “What the heck – another rejection won’t kill me,” and signed up for auditions. The longest break I’ve taken from improv since then – 1999 –  was for about three months, when my son was born.

What has the journey been like for you? 

Rewarding. Challenging. Almost never boring. Filled with some of the greatest friends and cast mates one could ever hope to meet. Serendipitous in many ways – I feel like people took chances on me all along the way that have led to some amazing opportunities.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improvisor? 

Oh man, that’s a tough one! Right now, I’m super proud of the publicity that a show I created, Swipe Right, has gotten in the past couple of years. We set out to tell truthful, diverse stories of all kinds of people – not just heteronormative, cisgendered ones – searching for connections, and have had an overwhelmingly positive response. That’s been a priority for Un-Scripted in general, and I’m proud of the kind of work we’re doing.

Any weird moments or scenes? 

You mean onstage or in my everyday life? 🙂 I’ve had a few weird favourite shows and characters, like my improvised teen goth radio show at ImprovBoston, but most recently I was really pleased to be recognized by a past audience member…for playing a singing llama about 8 years ago. It’s funny what sticks for some people!

How has improv made an impact on your life? 

In every way. Just every way. In the most literal sense, it’s given me a home and community throughout cross-country moves and every stage of life. It’s given me my husband, for that matter! It’s given me courage to take risks, to be resilient in the face of failure, it’s made me a better teacher and parent and hopefully the cognitive flexibility it provides is going to stave off dementia for a few extra years!

Oh wow! How did you meet your husband?

We actually met onstage at ImprovBoston. We performed in the same show every week starting in 2005. We finally confessed our feelings and started dating in 2008, to the apparent lack of surprise to everyone else, and have been together ever since. When we left Boston and moved across the country to San Francisco, we knew it was unlikely that we’d be cast together again anytime soon. Happily, that wasn’t the case, and Un-Scripted eventually asked us both to come on as ensemble members and as members of the staff that runs the theatre. Now we have a four-year old son, but we’ve managed to keep improv as a major part of our lives. Our son even slept in a baby carrier on my chest for some rehearsals. He has this wonderfully skewed view of what adults are like, as a result.

He is definitely going to become an improviser! Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I definitely steamrolled my way into a scene that I thought (from backstage) was calling for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Came thundering out onstage, tiny hands, the whole shebang. They definitely had said “trucks.” Not T-Rex. Oops. Lots of people still regularly send me dinosaur memes.

Where can we see you on stage? 

Mostly at Un-Scripted in San Francisco, on and off throughout the year, though I travel to festivals as well! I’ll next be appearing with both Un-Scripted and the hilariously named Kickapoo Community Players at the West Coast Musical Improv Festival. Otherwise, if you really want to see me, you can take a class with me or bring me to your company. 🙂

Is there anything you want to add or anything you want me to plug? 

Sure, thanks! Un-Scripted is 16 years old and runs a full season of improvised theatre – everything from full-length improvised plays and musicals to more traditional improv comedy. People can find us on Facebook and Instagram at @UnDashScripted. The West Coast Musical Improv Festival is about to have its third year from July 19th to 22nd. This year we’ll be bringing 13 troupes from across the country to perform and lead workshops over four days, and will have everything from hip hop to a cappella to a special musical version of Speechless!

Awesome. Thank you for sharing, Melissa!

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