David Melville and Melissa Chalsma’s Independent Shakespeare Company

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David Melville and Melissa Chalsma’s Independent Shakespeare Company 

From Shakespeare in the Park to Planning in the Dark 

By Ezra Bitterman

Melissa Chalsma and David Melville in TWELFTH NIGHT (2019).

This article is the second in Stage Raw’s series on domestic partners who run Los Angeles-area theaters, on how they’re coping under a stay-at-home order, and what they envisage as a future, after the plague. The first in this series, on Jack Stehlin and Jeannine Wisnosky-Stehlin and their New American Theatre, was posted earlier this month. 

This particular interview is also part of the Z. Clark Branson/Stage Raw/Wallis Annenberg Center Grow@The Wallis Young Journalists’ Initiative, where Bitterman is a Mentee. 

When Frolicking in the Park is Suddenly Toxic

Melville and Chalsma in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2015) in Griffith Park

“We wouldn’t normally spend so much time in the studio [offices], but there is so much to deal with. In terms of the potential catastrophe of having to cancel everything,” Melville explains. “. . . having to rewrite all of the budgets we spent months working on, [our funding] is out the window, it’s got to be started from scratch again, we’ll need to find new sources of funding.”

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Today, like most of us, spouses Melissa Chalsma and David Melville are complying with L.A. County’s stay-at-home orders. Co-founders of the 17-year-old Independent Shakespeare Company, Chalsma is the artistic director and Melville is the managing director. They operate out of a studio theater in Atwater Village, where they present classically oriented productions, adaptations and new works. However, the company is best known for its populist outdoor, summer Shakespeare-in-the-park seasons, employing ethnically diverse casts, and featuring considerable clowning and live music.

The summer festival was originally presented in east Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park starting in 2003. Their inaugural production played to 14 people, Chalsma explains. By 2009, their audience count for that summer had grown to 12,000. The next year, they graduated to Griffith Park. Both parks are owned by the city of Los Angeles, and throughout its history, with free admission for its Shakespeare-in-the-park outings, ISC has been spiritually and financially supported by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and a wide array of funders.

The 2020 summer season, featuring King Lear and As you Like It, now hangs in the balance, thanks to covid-19, though Melville and Chalsma find themselves as busy as ever raising money.

“We wouldn’t normally spend so much time in the studio [offices], but there is so much to deal with. In terms of the potential catastrophe of having to cancel everything,” Melville explains. “. . . having to rewrite all of the budgets we spent months working on, [our funding] is out the window, it’s got to be started from scratch again, we’ll need to find new sources of funding.”

The good news is that any drama at home has been minor because the couple have lived and worked together for so long.

“We generally know what’s going to set each other off so we really try not to get stuck in each other’s territory,” Melville explains. Furthermore, says Chalsma, “We are blessed with amazingly calm, go-with-the-flow kids [an 18-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son]. They are doing okay through all this, fortunately. They share a love of Saturday Night Live sketches, so we watch a lot of those!”

To Be, Or . . .

Program from Ralph Fiennes’ HAMLET on Broadway (1995)

“They were creating a world where everybody felt what they were doing was massively important, and I found that hugely inspiring.” Melville explains.

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The story of Melville and Chalsma’s union starts with the 1995 Broadway production of Hamlet starring Ralph Fiennes, which had transferred from London’s Almeida Theatre.

Although they were extras with no lines, this production would have a profound impact on their lives.

Director Jonathan Kent was known for running the production in a way where everyone felt included.

“They were creating a world where everybody felt what they were doing was massively important, and I found that hugely inspiring.” Melville explains.

Chalsma also was inspired by Kent’s directing style, chuckling as she remembers one of his advice to young creators, “Never underestimate your own naivete.”

They both chuckle as Melville recalls the amount of time they had to flirt backstage. They married a few months later.

At the time, Melville was a part-time private detective (really just a footman for a larger organization, he admits with a grin), doubling as a struggling actor. Chalsma, too was striving to make her way as an actor. So they decided to produce a Lower East Side production of Henry V, presented at The Present Company Theatorium in 1999. 

“I got tired of hearing myself complain about not having work, so I thought, let’s just do something,” Chalsma recalls.

Neither Melville nor Chalsma had any directorial experience; however, Chalsma was excited to see a play from a perspective different from that of just one character. This was a freeing realization as she took on the role of director.

“[Directing] was really surprising to me . . . because I was incredibly enamored with being an actor, I just loved being an actor. And the rest of the stuff just seemed like work; however, what I found was that it was really wonderful to think of storytelling from a few steps back.”

Meanwhile, Melville played the title role of Henry V.

They invested their own money in the production — $800 – in order to perform Tuesday nights at 10 pm. “Only a handful of people came,” Melville laments. 

Theatorium, on the Lower East Side, 1999

Melville thought his acting career was over when they lost their New York Apartment in 2001, they decided to move to L.A, to work full time and save money, leaving acting behind.

“Melissa’s sister just moved to L.A , and we thought we might as well move to L.A, and I was going to become a full-time waiter,” Melville explains. “I came to L.A. to quit acting and start a family. In the back of our minds, we thought one day that we would get back into producing.”

The couple’s dreams of being stars of the stage were beginning to float away as reality set in. They had first child 2001 and saved up enough money to put a down payment on a house. However, bored with waiting on tables, the new couple came back to producing. 

“When we rehearsed our first play, I would carry our daughter around while doing the scenes, she was like three months old,” Chalsma recalls.  

“What were we thinking?” Melville ruminates. “We were crazy.”

He then adds, “Somebody shot a documentary about us. It was never properly cut together, but we watched some of the footage; it was excruciating watching these younger versions of ourselves making these terrible mistakes. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’”

Finally, their dream of producing came to fruition when they founded Independent Shakespeare Company in Los Angeles, in 2003.   

The Launch of Independent Shakespeare Company

Groom and Bride, Melville and Chalsma

“We started with a question, what would it have been like in Shakespeare’s time?” says Chalsma.

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This question of what productions would have felt like when Shakespeare was writing resulted in the company’s free-wheeling, bawdy aesthetic, riffing on the Bard’s language with a hefty infusion of music, plus free admission to every show. That combination would make the company a major success filling the park’s parking lot almost every night. Eventually, they had to move into a bigger space near the old zoo at Griffith Park where they are now.

Some twenty years later and three thousand miles away, they haven’t moved far from the things they learned in that first Hamlet production on Broadway. Making everybody feel important and excited to put on the production is their main priority.

Says Chalsma, “I’m really interested that everyone who comes into contact with our work has a meaningful experience. Whether they’re volunteering or whether they’re interning backstage.”  

Much of their success comes in finding the balance of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century while also staying true to Elizabethan tradition. As Melville explains, “We have a spirit of playfulness . . . I think that actually connects more with the spirit of what it might have been like to watch a shown at the Globe in London.”

The shows being done and performed in a more relaxed way have helped give the company the kind of youthful and diverse audiences that are sometimes hard to find in L.A. theater. They routinely garner crowds of over 2,000 and 71 percent of people attending their shows are under 35. Audience engagement is clearly a priority of theirs, often featuring events such as Pirate Night, when the audience was encouraged to dress as pirates for ISC’s production of Pericles.

And yet, in late April 2020, it remains unclear when businesses will re-open — particularly live events with thousands of people in close proximity. According to a Shugall Research poll taken from 2,762 participants in the Washington DC area, “Most theatregoers will not immediately be ready to return to theatres even when they reopen,” American Theatre Magazine reports. “The survey found that around half (49 percent) of those questioned say they will likely wait a few months before returning. Only 25 percent think they would attend right away.”

Yet Melville comments on how his work actually improves under times of pressure.

“I thrive in the chaos, so when everything is happening, the magic starts to happen,” he says.

Hopefully soon, virus permitting, we can enjoy Independent Shakespeare Company prancing outdoors once again on a platform stage in the park.

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David Melville and Melissa Chalsma’s Independent Shakespeare Company