Family Portrait: Melissa Kolczynski

Oscar Wilde once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Of course he also said, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life.”

But that’s just the kind of guy he was. Theater is a medium that can transcend boundaries, open hearts and minds and, in the case of the Keith, Melissa and Tom Show, bring a smile to your face and make you put your troubles aside for just a moment. The most recent in a series of popular cabaret-style shows, “Good Songs for Tough Times” is sure to be another crowd pleaser and will help raise much-needed funds for the William Way LGBT Community Center. I spoke with Melissa Kolczynski about her journey to the stage.

PGN: Are you a Philly gal? MK: No, I was born in Pittsburgh and moved to York when I was in high school. I came to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts and have lived here ever since.

PGN: What was life like in the Pitts? MK: I loved growing up in Pittsburgh. It’s not quite like Philadelphia in that people don’t really live downtown. It’s more neighborhood-oriented. What I loved is that, though it had a small-town feel, it still had a big-city feel with a thriving arts and culture element. So it was like the best of the suburbs and the city at once.

PGN: What do your parents do? MK: My father is an engineer and my mom’s a math teacher.

PGN: So are you good at math? MK: [Laughs.] Yes! I’m one of the few actors I know who actually liked math. The classes that are usually favorites for actors — like English and history — were the classes that I hated. I was more into the sciences.

PGN: What was your best science experience? MK: Growing mold.

PGN: I’m hoping it was in a lab, not just leftover from sneakers in your locker or something. MK: No, no. It was in a Petri dish. I actually won a prize for it at a science fair.

PGN: Any siblings? MK: No, I’m an only child.

PGN: Who did you play with? MK: My best friend’s backyard and mine faced each other. She lived in a funeral home so I would hop the fence and we would sneak onto this little elevator that went down to the basement where they did all the embalming. We would try to sneak looks at the corpses. Good times.

PGN: When did you get the theater bug? MK: My father always kind of wanted to be a singer so I guess I got the performance bug from him. When I was about 12, I used to love to watch old movies — especially old musicals — and from then on, that’s all I wanted to do.

PGN: Which actor and actress would you want to be? MK: Male: Cary Grant for sure; female: Judy Garland.

PGN: A favorite line from a movie? MK: One of my favorite movies is “Auntie Mame” with Rosalind Russell. She has a scene where she wakes up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, hung over. Her best friend Vera Charles is in the next bedroom, also hung over. She receives the news that the trustee of her nephew’s estate is about to come over and meet her for the first time. She runs into the guest room and, as she opens up the curtains, Vera says, “He’s coming here, in the middle of the night? Good God, that moon is bright!” That’s one of my favorite lines.

PGN: So did you experience culture shock moving from Pittsburgh to York? MK: Oh yes, it was a big shock. The plus side was that they had a good community theater, so I got to really explore my theatrical desires there. Because it was a small community, I probably got more of a chance to act there than I might have in Pittsburgh.

PGN: What was the biggest difference? MK: Me! From day one I noticed that I was different than everyone else. I was probably the only girl in the entire school with short hair. Just the way I dressed, everything about me stood out. There were probably only two black people in the whole school, which also was a shock coming from a big city.

PGN: Favorite toy as a kid? MK: I had a tape recorder that I used to tape myself with and sing into. I still have some of the old tapes, which are really funny to listen to now.

PGN: I know you sing; do you play any instruments? MK: I play a little piano and I used to play the trumpet in marching band. I hated doing the parades. You had to hold your instrument up and, after a while, that trumpet could get really heavy.

PGN: An early sign you were gay? MK: In the old movies I used to watch when I was 8 or 9, the stories inevitably had some sweet woman being treated poorly by some man and I remember thinking, even as a kid, “God, if I had a woman like that I would never treat her that way!”

PGN: Last movie you saw? MK: “V for Vendetta.” I rented it. I don’t go to the movies very often.

PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled? MK: When I graduated from college, a friend of mine and I took off and just traveled across the country.

PGN: When did you come out? MK: At about 13, I came out to some friends. Shortly after, I had a friend who was pretty obviously gay and my mother knew I was hanging out with him, so one day she just asked me and it’s been out ever since. Neither of my parents had a problem with it.

PGN: Worst clothing disaster? MK: The last big show I was in was “Candide” at the Arden Theatre. They custom-built our costumes and they decided to give me a strapless dress for a waltz scene. I raised my arms during the dance and fell out of the dress. Fortunately, it was only a dress rehearsal, so there weren’t a lot of people in the audience. But there were enough to make it a sighting.

PGN: What types of books do you like to read? MK: I like books that incorporate several styles at once, like the book “Angels & Demons.” It has action and mystery and history all at once.

PGN: Others are embarrassed when I … MK: Talk loudly. And I have a tendency to blab things that are supposed to be secrets. Unless someone says specifically that I shouldn’t say something, I have a tendency to be overly honest about things.

PGN: The hardest part of being gay? MK: I got harassed a little in high school. There was a particular group of guys who would yell vulgar things and pick on me. I had a lot of friends but as bullies will do, they never did it if anyone else was around. I haven’t had any problems in my adult life.

PGN: I’m so gay … MK: That I’m uncomfortable telling people to go straight while giving driving instructions.

PGN: People often mistake me for … MK: When, and only when, I have dark lipstick on, people tell me I look like Gwen Stefani.

PGN: What’s your sign and what traits do you have? MK: I’m very much a Libra. We display things and I have a lot of knick-knacks and stuff. I also looked up my specific [birth] date one time and it said I should be an actor.

PGN: What traits have you inherited from your parents? MK: Oh God, I’m exactly like my mother except that I did inherit my father’s emotional side. We’re both criers, whereas my mother’s more stoic. But I have the same goofy sense of humor as her.

PGN: First crush? MK: Melody Easton from York. She was in one of the first shows I ever did. I hated her the day I met her and for a good week of rehearsals, and then suddenly I couldn’t get enough of her. Uh, yeah — after that crush, I knew I was gay. PGN: Person you’d want to sit with at a dinner party? MK: Liza Minnelli. I love her and I’m sure she’d do something fabulous or tragic that would make a good story later.

PGN: Favorite teacher? MK: My college voice teacher. She was tough, but you knew that if she complimented you, she meant it.

PGN: Three sounds you love or three you hate? MK: Let’s go with hate: the word “moist,” the fake sounds they make throwing punches on TV and the sound of someone pulling cotton apart.

PGN: Ginger or Maryanne? MK: Ginger …

PGN: Brush with fame? MK: I got to sing with Donna McKechnie, who won the Tony Award for “A Chorus Line,” and Chuck Wagner, who was the prince in “Into the Woods” and the beast in “Beauty and the Beast.” It was pretty awesome.

PGN: So what’s up next for you? MK: I’m doing a cabaret with Keith Kaczorowski and Tom Wilson Weinberg called “Good Songs for Tough Times.” In response to our current recession, we’re featuring funny and touching songs from the Depression era. The show is a benefit for the William Way LGBT Community Center’s High School Bookmobile Project. It’s our own little stimulus package …

“Good Songs for Tough Times” with Philadelphia trio Keith Kaczorowski, Melissa Kolczynski and Tom Wilson Weinberg takes the stage at Willie Way Cabaret at 6 and 9 p.m. May 16. For tickets, call the center at (215) 732-2220 or visit www.TomWilsonWeinberg.com.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].