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Anxiety runs high on the first day of an introductory improv comedy class. Being spontaneous and vulnerable in a roomful of strangers is, for many, an intimidating prospect.

But students found it hard to remain frightened after some lessons with Samantha Pereira, whose unfailing encouragement coaxed hundreds of novice Twin Cities improvisers out of their shells and convinced many to pursue performing.

“She had a way of making you feel like it was going to be OK. Like it’s going to be a good time,” said Jill Bernard, education director at HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis. “Because improv is so scary.”

Pereira, a veteran of the local improv scene whose tenure as a teacher and performer spanned nearly two decades, died on Dec. 10 after her car crashed into a guardrail in Vadnais Heights. She was 46.

Pereira made her mark teaching at Stevie Ray’s Improv Company in Minneapolis, where she spent several years as director, and later at HUGE Theater.

Over the years she also was a member of the Stevie Ray’s troupe, hosted their shows in a park beside Lake Harriet, performed with a group called Crock Pot and orchestrated a regular show named Off Book — featuring scenes in which one person improvises and another reads half of a two-person script.

“You felt on top of the world every time you performed for her,” said local writer and performer Josh Carson. “Because she loved seeing everybody succeed, no matter how big or how small.”

Some of Pereira’s closest friends were former students. Emily Schmidt, who performs at Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, took her first improv class with Pereira when she was just 12. “She … was genuinely excited about what I was bringing to the table, which sort of melted that fear away,” Schmidt said.

As a senior in high school, Schmidt skipped prom and instead decided to wear her formal dress to that night’s Stevie Ray’s show. Pereira and a friend organized an entire “improm” evening, replete with fancy dinner, corsages and a theater decked with streamers and a disco ball.

Maureen Tubbs, another student-turned-friend who performed in Crock Pot, said Pereira was always ready to add helpful context and detail on stage. “In improv scenes, she just made it effortless for the partner,” Tubbs said.

Pereira trained school districts in student information software for Blaine-based Infinite Campus, frequently traveling across the country. She had been in the middle of a project in Hawaii and was slated to return there for about seven months, said her supervisor, Bonita Linder.

Pereira was born in Lubbock, Texas, and grew up in an Air Force family that moved frequently. She arrived in Minnesota to attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Her mother, Katherine Pereira, said her outgoing personality was likely due in part to adapting to so many social environments. “When you move every two years, you either become a recluse … or you become the kid that fits in,” Katherine Pereira said.

The cause of the fatal crash remains unclear. A State Patrol report said Pereira’s car passed through a grassy median on Interstate 694 and entered oncoming traffic, sideswiping another car before hitting a wooden guardrail. Lt. Tiffani Nielson said that officials were still investigating.

Katherine Pereira said she thinks her daughter had a stroke. She said a woman behind Pereira, seeing that her vehicle was drifting on and off the highway, followed it for 6 miles before watching it cross into the median.

In addition to her mother, Pereira is survived by her father Miguel, a legislator in Puerto Rico, and brother Miguel III.