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!

Improv is for anyone

Shreya Patel (left) started improvising in January of 2017. She says pursuing improv has changed her life.

As Shreya Patel says, improv is for anyone. And she’s right. Before boarding the improv train last year, I never did any kind of performing. Hell, I never even imagined myself getting on stage. But getting into improv has been one of the best things I have ever done. Then again, I don’t do much.

Anyways, let’s meet Shreya, a model-turned-actress-improviser-and-filmmaker living in Toronto. She recently directed a documentary called Girl Up, aimed at raising awareness of domestic violence, human trafficking and social injustice. In addition to acting and improvising, she is also a mental health advocate and can be seen in this year’s Bell Let’s Talk campaign.

Disclaimer: Shreya is a friend of mine. We did classes together at Second City and we’re members of the same troupe, Coffee Breath. But she’s cool. Really cool. Here’s what she had to say.

How did you get into improv?

I was dealing with anxiety due to the negative environment at my workplace and I really needed a laugh which is when I decided to sign up for improv classes at Second City. It was something I always wanted to try and the time was right. I knew that taking my first improv class would keep me on my feet and help me be present in the moment which was hard to do at the time.

What has the journey been like for you?

The journey has been incredible. The teachers. The community. The people. When I first started my improv classes, I didn’t realize how addicted I would get to it or how far I would come. I am so grateful every day to the day I decided to do improv and signed up.

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

I heard from teachers and peers that the Second City conservatory program is hard to get into. I was just finishing up Level E and didn’t think I was ready to audition so I didn’t sign up. On the last day of class, two days before the audition, our teacher Matt Folliott mentioned that if you audition and don’t get in, you will get good feedback for the future. I emailed to find out if any spots were still available and they squeezed me in with a group for the audition. I went to it stress-free because I was convinced I will be required to audition again and was there for just for the notes. I remember having the most fun on stage due to feeling no pressure. A couple of weeks later, I got an acceptance letter to the program. The feeling was incredible.

Any weird moments or scenes?

Oh, yes. I was performing at Comedy Bar with a great bunch of people and we did a pad set (a pad set is an audience-driven format, where improvisers come up with different premises based on audience suggestions). We got on stage and it got really weird. The premise involved Demi Lovato’s evil pants. I’m not kidding.  I played Demi Lovato, and two of my team members became my pants, one side each. One member became Owen Wilson and tried to save me from my pants.

How has improv made an impact on your life?

Improv has changed my life. My anxiety has healed and the amount of amazing people I have met on this journey is incredible. I am more involved in the community and I perform or watch improv shows every week. My ideal weekend is watching a show at Bad Dog Theatre or Comedy Bar, and hanging out after with everyone in the community.

If there’s one rule of improv that stuck with me, it’s that okay to make mistakes. Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

Yes, there are many times as improvisers that we mess up on stage and we gotta know that it is okay. My Conservatory teacher Alastair Forbes gave us the best advice: If you are not having fun on stage, you are not doing it right! It really stuck with me and now every time I hit the stage, I always ask myself, how can I have the most fun right now and do that.

Where can we see you on stage?

We are putting up a show almost every second week at Second City for conservatory program and trying out new premises to see if it works. Our main show is on October 20 at 1pm at the Second City main stage. I will also be soon performing with my class at The Assembly Improv. Dates are getting finalized soon. For dates to the shows, follow @imshreyapatel.

Is there anything you want to add?

Improv isn’t just for actors. Improv is for anyone. I recommend it to anyone from all different backgrounds. It’s an excellent way to meet like-minded people, improve your mental health, build communication skills, have fun and…most importantly…laugh. Brighten up your day with some comedy. Do self-care. Do you.

Thanks, Shreya! You heard her, folks. Improv is definitely for anyone. Now go do some improv. Seriously.

There’s no place like improv…I mean, home

For more than 30 years, Velvet Duke has been doing improv. He says one of the main benefits is the opportunity to connect with others. Photo credit: Brent Robichaud

When I first got into improv last year, one thing that struck with me was the inspiring and supportive community that I found myself exposed to. Over the past year, I met a range of talented improvisers who continue to support each other.

One of them was Velvet Duke, an improviser and singer based in Toronto. Velvet started performing 30 years ago and hasn’t looked back. We caught up about his journey navigating through the improv community and how he sought to even further empower the community with some awesome shows.

How did you get into improv?

My high school theatre arts teacher introduced improv as one component of his curriculum. After that, I had an opportunity to go to school for programming or acting. I loved programming but didn’t think I would like it as a job. I took a year of theater in college and found it didn’t satisfy the way improv had.

Improv is the more interesting art form because you can throw yourself into the moment and each show offers different moments.

What has the journey been like you?

It has been a lifelong journey with some of my greatest joys and friendships, and some of my deepest woes.

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

Being thanked for some of my show formats — they were designed to uplift the community and that has seemed to have worked.

That’s amazing that you produced your own shows for the community. Can you tell me more about that?

It was new to me. I’m used to creating things but to have people thank me was really humbling.

Anyways, INTERSECTION was created to offer more stage time to diverse performers. It gives us a chance to see ourselves together as a group rather than one or two per show. It also brings in an audience that reflects that diversity.

Tough Love was part personal workshop and part show, where a featured performer could work through some of their bad habits. It was fun while it lasted and may come back.

The Sampler was a competition format that had performers working against strict timings to develop their skills for delivering and polishing material on demand.

What inspired you to produce these shows?

Initially I would look to see what I felt was a missing format in the communal landscape. Of the three though, INTERSECTION is the one I am proud of yet most similar to other shows. It isn’t the first show of its type — but there was still a hunger for it in the community.

Also, I love improv too much not to have things on the go.

What has the feedback been like?

Each sought to bring the community together. INTERSECTION often has the performers and audience talking after the show, continuing their personal stories.

Also, I’ve had professional performers unable to be part of the project thank me for creating it for the sake of the community.

That’s awesome. Anyways, back to you, my friend. Any weird moments or scenes that you can share?

I remember engaging with the audience at a Harry Potter themed show at Comic-Con. A little boy decided he was a very deadly potion but he also had the cutest giggle. At another Comic-Con show, a young woman decided she was a dragon. They were as invested as the performers!

How has improv made an impact on your life?

  • Finding the “yes” in seemingly difficult situations
  • Bringing humour to tense situations
  • Being able to empathize and connect with others
  • Being able to face down fears, to act through it
  • The joys of spending hours (okay, years) performing and talking about a shared passion
  • The friendships

If there’s one rule of improv that stuck with me, it’s that okay to make mistakes. Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and how you rolled with it?

Once I coughed from the sidelines and that led me to be endowed as a sickly wife being used as blackmail to keep the husband working the smithy.

Also, I’ve developed aphasia and I already speak faster than I think, so I have made many unintended offers. Happy accidents!

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform across Toronto with my troupes The Dandies and OverDude. Also, I guest on shows at The Social Capital Theatre, Comedy Bar, Bad Dog Theatre, and regularly at the QAPD Collective, Toronto’s weekly LGBTQ open mic show, at Pegasus on Church.

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

Learn everything you can by watching shows and taking classes but also hold on to your unique style, interests and, especially your weirdness.

Shows to plug:

INTERSECTION – the joys and struggles of Canadian life (next: June 6)
Diverse storytelling comedy show – 1st Wednesday of every month at The Social Capital

Holodeck Follies (next: June 9)
Spontaneous Star Trek and variety comedy show. 2nd Saturday of every month at Comedy Bar

Thanks for sharing, Velvet! Also, make sure you like his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter!

Laughing in the face of fear

Cameron Algie started improvising at Second City Toronto 12 years ago. “I’m a completely different person now, thanks to improv,” he says. Photo credit: Adrianne Gagnon.

Someone once told me that if you’re scared to do something, that is the reason why you should do it. I forget who that person was (I have the memory of a chimpanzee), but their words stuck with me.

To kick things off, I spoke with Cameron Algie, an improviser in Toronto. Cameron teaches improv for anxiety at Second City Toronto and Play With Fire Improv. He also produces Laugh in the Face of Fear, a show based on the theme of anxiety. We caught up about his journey as an improviser and how it changed his life.

How did you get into improv?

I was seeing a therapist for my anxiety and any time he tried to get me to be vulnerable, I’d turn to joking and trying to lighten the mood. He laughed a couple of times, told me I was funny, and said I should take a Second City class. I took it as him listening to me talk about how I felt alone and scared and sick all the time and unable to leave my house, and his solution was to go be funny on a stage in front of hundreds of judgmental strangers. I thought it over, and stopped seeing that therapist. But he had planted the thought in my head. About six months after that, I hit emotional rock bottom, and decided there was really nothing left to lose, so I signed up for a class.  I hated the idea and improv scared the shit out of me. After a few classes, I started to love it.

What has the journey been like for you?

Literally life-changing. I mean, I used to be a copywriter in advertising. I would go to classes or shows after work each night. Then I started teaching classes after work. Eventually the scales started to tip. I remember leaving work one night to do a show and the shocked expression on people’s faces that I would dare leave when there was still work to get done. But I’d found a new priority. When I finally worked up the courage to get fired, I decided to make a go of improv as a career. I make less, but I’m way happier.

Side bar, I recently went back and did a corporate improv show for the agency that fired me.

And how has improv made an impact on your life?

I’m a completely different person now thanks to improv. For one, I used to be a huge asshole. My inner voice was so judgmental and harsh. If I messed up at all, even flubbed a word, my inner voice would say something like, “You stupid useless piece of shit, no wonder nobody loves you!” I got used to that voice. It was all I heard. So used to it, it started to become my voice. I spoke to others the way I would speak to myself. If an account person (advertising person between the creatives and the clients) messed up at all, I would say something charming like, “You useless piece of shit…”

But I really took to the acceptance part of improv. This is how this is. Instead of constantly trying to change it, just give over to it and go along for the ride. It softened me tremendously. My inner voice is very loving now, and my outer has changed too. I hope there are people who can’t imagine me being an asshole, as much as I accept that there are still people from my ad days who can’t imagine me ever even smiling. Also, I smile all the time now.

I can’t imagine you being an asshole. Has improv changed the way you feel about yourself?

I felt I had to be perfect all the time. To constantly be better than I was yesterday and always growing and improving. It was a lot of pressure. I hated it. I hated life. Improv showed me mistakes were okay. I struggled to make mistakes at first, but then really grew to understand that there really is no such thing in improv. If you mess up and call cars “carbs” then your team builds a world where people drive carbs, and other people are worried about their weight and can’t drive carbs. The play is really in the mistakes. That carried over into my life and I was able to beat myself up less when something went “wrong.”

That’s one rule of improv that stuck with me, It’s okay to make mistakes. Can you share a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

Oh man, probably thousands of times. None are popping into my head because they weren’t treated as mistakes, so they didn’t even register as one. I remember one time seeing someone stumble a bit getting onto the stage. Very embarrassing. For one second. Before the next player on the team also stumbled. Then the next teammate fell onto the ground. The rest of the team heightened till the audience was enjoying their “obviously pre-planned” stage entrance bit. Voila, no mistake!

I’m curious. Can you tell us about a particularly weird scene you’ve been in?

That’s the thing about improv, it’s mostly weird. But not weird. I’ve played a feather boa constrictor, driven a bathtub car, had laser legs, and a whole bunch of other crazy shit, but they all felt normal in the context of the scene.

Any tips for other folks who may want to try improv?
I feel like I should know how to answer this.
    • Bring a friend. I brought Sally and my buddy Tom to my first Second City class and it helped having them there.
    • Go see a show. The first improv show I saw (Catch 23 at Clinton’s) blew my mind. I actually said, “I could never do that.” But there was something that seemed so cool about it.
    • Try a drop-in. It can feel scary to commit to a full class, but improvising for a couple of hours makes it feel more doable.
    • Try improv by yourself or with a friend. There are resources out there that have lists of improv games.
    • Just practice playing. Board games, sports, any of the 365 ways to play on Instagram at @PlayWithFireImprov.
    • Know that you don’t have to be funny and you’re not expected to be good. It’s a class, meaning you’re there to learn. And you’re not there to get good at improv, you’re there to get okay with not being good at something.
    • The class itself isn’t scary, but the idea of it is, so most of the fear will come before the class. The hardest part is walking through that door the first time. So maybe sign up at the last minute. That way you’re not signing up two months before and then waiting and imagining all kinds of things for weeks before you go do it. Decide to do a drop-in that night.
    • Also go to the place where you’re thinking of doing a drop-in or class, and check out the space or see a show. Having that familiarity will make it easier the next time you go.
    • Breathe.

Where can we see you on stage?

Gonna plug my own show here: Laugh in the Laugh-in-Face-of-Fear-Feb-e1488170420246.jpgFace of Fear. There’s a free drop-in beforehand for anxious people who’d like to try improv but are scared to sign up a full improv class. Third Tuesday of every month, 8pm, at The Social Capital.

Other than that, I don’t have a ton of regular shows. Come see S&P whenever we perform. And Booze Clues and Blast from the Past, and any show that invites me to come play. Follow me on Twitter? Don’t, I don’t use Twitter.

Thanks so much for sharing, Cameron! You heard him, folks. Follow him on Twitter.

Laughter is definitely the best medicine

Sam improv 2

We’ve all heard the old adage “Laughter is the best medicine.” For me, it holds true.

You would think getting into improv would be one of the last things I would want to do, especially as someone who suffers from generalized anxiety and depression. Talk about uncertainty.

For years, I was struggling. I was unhappy. My therapist has called it dysthymia, a mild but chronic depression.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve faced elements of depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and hypersensitivity. There have been occasions when I would be afraid to leave the house over a debilitating fear that something bad may happen. There have been occasions when I’ve cried myself to sleep. There have been occasions when I felt as though I didn’t want to live. There have been occasions where I’ve felt unloved and I put a smile on my face even though I was not smiling on the inside. I was isolating myself and pushing people away. I was unhappy. I was anxious. No one around me even knew — at least, I think they didn’t know.

I knew I wanted to change. I sought help. I opened up to my friends and family about how I was feeling — I still remember the look on my mom’s face when I told her how unhappy I was.

I also wanted to branch out and find new interests. Last year, I decided to take the improv for anxiety class at Second City Toronto.

At first, I was terrified at the thought of doing improv. But I decided to jump in. One of the first icebreaker games we played was penguin tag, which is exactly as it sounds; it’s tag but you waddle like a penguin as you play. It was fun.

I immediately loved this new world I got into. I loved jumping into scenes. I loved making a fool of myself (something I do quite a bit of anyways). I loved the community of interesting and supportive people.

For the next eight months after that, I found myself taking more classes and getting more involved in the improv community. Now, I even joined an improv troupe (suitably named Coffee Breath) and started performing.

Over the past year, I realized just how much improv has improved my wellbeing. Naturally, the more I got into it, the better I started to feel about myself. I was feeling confident. I was having fun. Here are a few takeaways that I’ve picked up through improv:

You learn how to stay mentally present.

A constant struggle for people with anxiety is staying in the moment. I mean, it’s hard to keep your focus when you’re constantly worrying about something. One of the first games we played in class, called Red Ball, incorporated the need to stay focused. Actually, it’s a lot like mindfulness.

You learn how to cope with – even embrace – uncertainty.

Improv is about dealing with the unexpected. After all, everything is made up on the spot. When you struggle with anxiety, this might be your worst nightmare. But trust me: it teaches you to tolerate and even welcome uncertainty. Uncertainty keeps things interesting and improv teaches you to have fun with it.

Your presence alone is enough.

In improv, it doesn’t really matter what we say or do, so long as we’re there to keep things moving – even if it moves in another direction. While we may doubt ourselves or question our worth in our daily lives, sometimes our presence alone is enough.

It’s actually okay to make mistakes.

Mistakes aren’t just tolerated in improv. They’re celebrated.  Improv is mostly about being weird and silly anyways. And every mistake is an opportunity.  It’s how we learn and grow.

You learn self-awareness.

Improv teaches us to be in touch with our emotions. In my first class, we started off by simply walking around the room and paying attention to our breathing. Then our instructor asked us to make eye contact with others as we’re walking. Then, she asked us to wink at them. Finally, she asked us to stop and scream (and quite loudly) to each other. With each layer added, we paid attention to how our breathing changed and how we felt. She asked us how to embrace our anxieties and our vulnerabilities.

Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle but I’m okay with that. Thanks to improv, I’m okay with the uncertainty. And hey, there’s always penguin tag.