Robbie McDonald

Robbie McDonald

A singer-songwriter, journalist, and native Los Angeleno, Robbie McDonald has contributed reviews to Entertainment Weekly, Hot Press, GCN, and International Living. Robbie and his writing partner Marcus T. Smith are excited to be taking their "Healing Retreat: A Life of Joy" musical to NYMF this summer. (Photo by Tony Coelho.)

Theater Evangelizing: A Conversation with Melissa Chalsma and David Melville

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by Robbie McDonald

Melissa Chalsma and David Melville met on Broadway some twenty years ago and married shortly thereafter. Very shortly. Melissa jokes that, upon telling her father that she was planning on getting married, he said, “That’s lovely Melissa. Did you have anyone in mind?”

And, yet, here we are.

Though David had toyed with the idea of opening a sandwich shop — he has since come to identify as gluten intolerant, thus cementing the correctness of the couple’s ultimate choice — the pair agreed instead to co-found Independent Shakespeare Co. (ISC). While it’s hard to imagine this fiercely creative couple devoting their many talents to running a sandwich shop – they are both accomplished actor/directors and David is a composer — you do get the sense it would be a warm and welcoming place all the same.

From barebones beginnings, the company’s annual Free Shakespeare Festival has grown into what The Huffington Post calls “one of Los Angeles’ best cultural events.” ISC also recently received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s highest honor, the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theater.

And sustain they have. Through financial struggle, red tape, and childbirth — the couple are raising two school-aged children – these two maintain an almost giddy delight in spreading the word of the Bard.

The new studio/performance space, ample but modest, will bring increased technical capacity as well as comfort for the performer (the company’s original digs required that costume changes occur aside a file cabinet in a tiny office space), but Chalsma seems most excited about the enhanced audience experience it will provide. A comfortable, alert audience member is more likely to focus on the words, and this idea seems to motivate Chalsma and Melville.

A former educator, Chalsma provides pre-show workshops at the Griffith Park site as a means of heightening the audience experience. Such outreach has resulted in an audience that is young (71% are aged 35 and under), diverse (48% identify as non-Caucasian and 77% are middle and lower income), and engaged.

So, to the taunting purist (“Stick to Shakespeare!”), Viking LARPer, and wide-eyed child routing for Puck, there’s one thing we know for certain: You’re paying attention.

And, if you’ve enjoyed the Griffith Park shows, know that the intention for the new space is to bring some of that relaxed, summer vibe indoors (although you might want to leave the horses, harnessed kittens, and goats at home).

On this 15th anniversary of Independent Shakespeare Company’s staging of free Shakespeare in Los Angeles City parks, I sat down with Chalsma and Melville in their new studio and performance space at Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex. 


 David Melville:  Shall we meet in the green room?

@THISSTAGE:  Oh, there’s a green room now!

DM: Indeed.

Melissa Chalsma:  And we have a chandelier in the lobby now! And the walls are pink!

We walk past a modestly appointed dressing room, a rack of costumes neatly off to one side.

The new ISC Studio lobby. (Photo by Grettel Cortes.)

MC: So you act as well? And you’re a writer? And a musician?

@TS:  So, uh, yes, I’m… Wait, you’re interviewing me now? 

Chalsma is the sort of person who asks you about yourself. With this spirit of generosity and Shakespeare as her muse, she has inspired and nurtured countless young people during her more than 10 years as an educator.

@TS:  I heard that your cast performs the music in the play! That’s so cool.

MC:  Yes, we have four or five songs I think that are not from Shakespeare. Some are traditional folk songs, some are 1980s folk songs, and any live music will be played. We have some accordion, some guitar, some drums. It’s not a musical…

@TS:  Well, now everything’s a musical…

MC:  It actually has a few songs that Shakespeare put in it, that we’ve cut—

@TS:  You cut Shakespeare’s songs.

MC:  (laughs) I did…

@TS:  So, 15 years! Did you ever expect [ISC] to get so big?

MC:  I don’t think we ever even particularly thought –- I mean, I never thought –- I would be a director, or we would run a theater company. It really was, as I think it is for many actors, sort of accidental — that we weren’t working as much as we wanted to be working, so we started producing. So, it was 15 years ago that we did our first free outdoor event with the parks and we really had absolutely no idea what we were doing, at all.

@TS:  And it was originally at another park.

MC:  It was at Barnsdall Park, and the first year we actually built a stage over the pond that’s sort of in the backyard of the Hollyhock House.

DM:  Yes, it was a pond that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed.

@TS:  Was there a moat?

DM:  There was actually sort of a reverse moat because it ran through the middle of the house and ended in this sort of circular pond. And he put terracing around it so it was a natural amphitheater. He built it for Aline Barnsdall, who was a theater impresario/actress back in 1914. She wanted to build an actor’s commune.

@TS:  She sounds cool.

DM:  Oh yeah, she was. She hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build this house for herself, which ended up looking like a Mayan tomb and I think she set foot in it once and decided she hated it and lived in the limo driver’s quarters for the rest of her life. (laughs)

MC:  (laughs) And when she died, she left it to the city to be a center for the arts, and that’s why there’s a gallery there, and that’s why they do all those art classes.

@TS:  You’d think I would have known this. (I went to Los Feliz Elementary, right across the street from Barnsdall Park.)

DM:  So, we turned up with our first show—

@TS:  She would love that!

MC:  We hope so. You know what? Her granddaughter came once when we were at Barnsdall, and actually said that her grandmother would have loved us.

DM:  Really?

MC:  Yes, don’t you remember that?

@TS:  He doesn’t remember. And how did it come to be at Griffith Park?

DM:  We sort of became a nuisance there (at Barnsdall Park). We’d been there 6 years, and every time we’d perform we’d max out all the parking—

MC:  It was just too big for Barnsdall Park.

@TS:  Well, that’s kind of a good feeling all the same.

DM:  Yes.

MC:  We were friends with the people who do Symphony in the Glen— they’re a free concert series— and they said, “Oh, we perform in this Old Zoo in Griffith Park. You should check it out.”

DM:  As things were becoming an issue at Barnsdall Park, I had to go to several meetings with Recs and Parks, and they had been pushing for us to move to Griffith Park for a while.

@TS:  Was it awkward like the sitcom?

DM:  They’re actually really great people to partner with.

MC:  So great. Yeah, they love having people, they love citizens being in the park and enjoying recreation. So, for them—they were just so happy. They always love that so many people come to the shows because they love to see people in the park, using the park, enjoying the park. It turned out to be such a great move.

A New Stage

(Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography.)

@TS:  So, in essence, because they’re so pleased, is this new stage (the park is building a new stage at the Old Zoo site for 2019) sort of an outgrowth? I mean, you, in effect, put that in motion.

DM:  Yes.

MC:  Well, it’s interesting. I think there had been in the past — on some city document somewhere — “This could be a stage, or performance area, or…”

DM:  Then, when Tom LaBonge took over -– and he loves Griffith Park—

@TS:  That’s right, he hikes, and…

MC:  He’s Mr. Griffith Park. He’s great. We always see him in the park and sometimes he stops by our rehearsals just to say hi.

DM:  So, when we came along and Tom came to see a show, he was amazed because there were thousands of people there — and he didn’t even know this was happening in his backyard — and he got really excited and said, ‘Well, let’s cook this up again. Cuz’ you guys are here, and the funds are here…’ And it seemed like it was all going to happen very quickly, and that was like seven years ago. (laughs)

@TS:  That’s probably quick in the scheme of things around here.

DM:  It’s going to make the site even better.

@TS:  Is the stage specifically for ISC or is it for other performances as well?

MC:  We would be there just for the summer, for the span of our season, and I would imagine Symphony in the Glen would use it.

DM:  The intention is that it’s for the free concerts and free Shakespeare, but what else happens when we’re not there, who knows?

MC:  If you were there, you could do yoga on the platform.

@TS:  Anyone can just jump up there and… busk?

MC:  Yeah, you could busk! You could, absolutely, yeah.

@TS:  Really? I may have to look into that!

MC:  It’s really pretty. It’s going to make it so nice for the audience to go and see the shows. It’s pretty minimal, and in terms of environmental impact, it’s not a huge amount of digging. It’s been deemed really low-impact, which is great.

@TS:  I wanted to ask you about the pre-show workshops you offer. I had read that the audience demographic is skewing younger and reaching all parts of Los Angeles, which I think is an amazing accomplishment. Did this grow out of your experience as an educator, and also, why Shakespeare?

MC:  I mean, Shakespeare in his time was the most popular writer, writing in the most popular artform. It was absolutely popular entertainment. When Shakespeare was writing plays, he certainly wasn’t writing them for people to study them. He didn’t even publish most of his plays while he was alive.

@TS:  Right.

MC:  OK, once upon a time, a student asked me a similar question and I thought about it. And we were doing Twelfth Night and there’s this moment at the end of the play, you know, where it’s been revealed that there are twins and Olivia, for a moment, thinks they’re both boys and she holds them out in her arms and says, “Most wonderful,” and the audience just breaks down, laughing hysterically. So I said to this student, I think it’s because people laughed at that line 400 years ago, and they’re still laughing at that line, and they’re going to laugh at it 400 years from now.

@TS:  Wow, yes. (I’m having a lightbulb moment, thinking how much I would have loved to have been one of her students.)

MC:  And there’s something very magical about that to me, and for me it addresses something about wanting to be centered in time. It makes me feel more connected sort of, on a personal level. And I think there’s something really awesome about – I mean, I love new works too – but to do plays where you’re part of this long ongoing conversation that started long before you were born and will go on long after you die? You’re part of this conversation that’s going to continue. And that is really powerful to me. And I think that, you know, it’s kind of gone through phases with Shakespeare and how he’s viewed as a writer and, in the end, he was supremely entertaining. … I mean, our job is to figure out what’s entertaining about the plays and then entertain people with them. And if it’s not entertaining, it’s not doing its job. And, with that perspective, I think you can present very challenging work. Not that we dumb it down in any way, but if you’re really focusing on ‘what’s entertaining in this’ – and I know, when some people hear the word ‘entertainment’ they take it almost pejoratively. Now there’s kind of this ‘high art/low art,’ but maybe it’s all just art. And that’s what’s wonderful about Shakespeare’s plays, is that there’s really low humor and really high humor, and there’s really intense tragedy and great comedy, and it’s all in one place.

@TS:  Yes.

MC:  And, to me, that’s more lifelike. You know, now I think we’re sort of in this era of drama where things are one or the other, you know, you sort of don’t get that sense of things. I mean, All’s Well That Ends Well, the play we’re doing here in the studio, is a prime example of one of the plays he wrote that has these crazy contrasting scenes, just stuffed right next to each other, and I think that’s exciting.

Melissa’s phone chirps.

MC (to David): Can you see if it’s the school? I always have this panic. (In addition to running their own theater company, Melissa and David are raising their two school-aged children. When the kids were very young, the ISC reservations line used to ring at the family’s home. Melissa jokes that her daughter’s first words were, “Hello, Independent Shakespeare Company.”)

It’s a false alarm.

MC:  But, in terms of the plays in the park, we look at it as, I think we did say, “The gateway drug” to theater. And we kind of Evangelize for the idea of theater, that theater includes everybody and belongs to everyone. We can all be together in this great community and enjoy the same thing. It’s like a communal act for us. And so, with the workshops in the summer, it’s really about, more than anything, helping families feel comfortable seeing the play. So we introduce the characters, give them things to watch for during the play for the younger – like, look for all the times someone’s forgiven in this play – so we can help them become engaged audience members. The kind of theater outreach we do is about welcoming people into the community of the audience, as opposed to actor training for young people.

A sprawling audience from 2015’s “Much Ado About Nothing”. “People say that LA Theater is dead. But look at this turnout for free theater!” (Photo by Vanessa Cate)

@TS:  Art appreciation.

MC:  Yes, and sometimes those nights are the best nights. So they know when they sit down, they—(to David) Oh, remember that? We did Midsummer Night’s Dream and did this big workshop and they talked about all the mechanicals and they met the different actors playing the characters. And when they got to the lion being scared, a little girl called out, “You have a big heart, Snug! You can do it!” And all the kids started going, “You can do it, Snug!” It was so adorable. I mean, it was so cute!

@TS:  Now I don’t have to ask my next question, which was, “What are your best recollections of having inspired a young person.”

MC:  Oh yeah, that was a good one. Because, you know, they just really felt like they were pulling for him. Shall I tell the one about how we were heckled?

@TS:  Please.

MC:  We tend to look at these plays as, look, this is supposed to be funny and how can we make it funny, cuz it’s really important that people laugh here, because if they don’t, they won’t appreciate the tragedy of the next scene. So we do tend to be a little bit irreverent and so, with Midsummer Night’s Dream, that same night, when Puck is about to give his final speech, and he just happened to be playing the electric guitar—

@TS:  Oh dear.

MC:  Yeah, and somebody in the audience yelled out, “Stick to Shakespeare!”

@TS:  There’s always one purist.

MC:  And the rest of the audience gasped. And the next line Puck had was, “If we shadows have offended.” And it brought down the house! It was amazing! I mean, it was a really big audience. I felt almost bad for that guy. Well, I got heckled, so I don’t feel that bad.

@TS:  Right!

MC:  There always was this group of people who’d come up after the shows and say, “You know, you don’t really have to do Shakespeare for the people.” You know, these high-minded people who sort of didn’t think we should play to the common. And I kept saying, No, this is how I like the plays. This is how I like the plays. We actually like the plays this way. (laughs)

DM:  There are some people who think that, unless Shakespeare is slightly boring then it’s not good for you.

@TS:  Yeah, it’s supposed to be work, right?

DM:  Yes, unless it’s tough to get through–-

@TS:  A chore.

MC:  Yeah, we don’t like our theater to be a chore. I think theater should be a joyful communion. And we want our audiences to feel very welcomed to relax—

DM:  Ahem.

MC:  Oh yes, they can get very relaxed. Sometimes, if you go to the back, they’re very relaxed together, under blankets. Shakespeare is very romantic!

DM:  Yeah, it would be an interesting statistic: How many children were conceived at an ISC show?

MC:  Last year someone brought kittens, isn’t that funny? And a goat!

@TS:  I love the way you led with the kittens. A goat?!

MC:  Yeah.

DM:  But the kittens were in little harnesses! And then she lost one of them, right at the climax of the play! Everyone’s staring at the stage and there’s this woman desperately looking for her kitten.

@TS:  I think I know this woman.

DM:  People would ride their horses to the show, and they’d stand behind the audience with their horses.

@TS:  That’s so cool.

MC:  Remember the Vikings?

@TS:  Now we’re getting somewhere.

MC:  We got there one night and there were all these people dressed up as Vikings, playing their Viking games and LARPing — you know, live action role play — and speaking in Viking and just, you know, being Vikings.

@TS:  As you do.

MC:  And our house manager was like, “Um, hi? Um, this is really great… But we’re, uh, going to start a play?”

@TS:  All Mary Tyler Moore…

DM:  Well, she normally has to deal with all these aggressive groups that don’t want to leave and –-

MC:  You know what? It’s usually like these fratty guys with Frisbees or Los Feliz hipsters drinking artisanal margaritas.

@TS:  Lychee margaritas.

MC: Yeah, but so she went up to these Vikings and they said, “No, we came here today so we could watch the play.” I have a photo somewhere of Ashley –- who was in the play –- surrounded by all these Vikings. That was just like such a cool audience experience.

@TS:  In terms of this new studio space and the added tech capabilities, David, you had talked about the idea of the venue as the star of the show. Can you tell me more about what that means to you?

DM:  Well, in London, you go to the Royal Shakespeare Company or you buy a ticket to the National or the Donmar Warehouse, and those theaters, not necessarily because of who’s in it, but because that theater has a history and track record of quality.

@TS:  Oh. Yes.

DM:  You know, so the Royal Shakespeare Company –- not that it does this –- but it can quite easily put up a show without any names in it.

@TS:  And people come because of the venue, yes.

DM:  And I think we’ve forgotten that a little bit. You know, creating ensembles that are exciting to audiences, rather than trying to fish around for a movie star to be in your play.

@TS:  Right.

MC:  Yeah, we’ve definitely, now that you say it that way –- we tend to work with a core ensemble. I always like — when we make a commitment to an actor, it’s a long-term commitment. We make long-term commitments to people.

@TS:  And they to you, presumably.

MC:  Presumably, yes. Ideally, yeah, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for long-term relationships. (laughs)

@TS:  LTRs.

MC:  Exactly. You know, we’ve had actors who’ve come in with almost no Shakespeare experience whatsoever and just a great drive to do theater, people who’ve felt excited about the work we did. And we’re thinking about them in terms of, not just this play, but how can they fit this play and that play, you know? We’re trying to build our ensemble.

A still from ISC’s 2016 production of “Othello” staged in their old indoor space. (Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography.)

@TS:  So you develop your actors.

MC:  Yes, I think we do. At least in some cases we have. And then, in other cases, we’ve been lucky to work with people who are very established. We’re just grateful to have had them come on early and still work with them. You know, people who are just amazing actors. So, it is that idea that, can we have a thing where you go, and you go because, like you said, ‘I know I’m going to have a great time in this place. I don’t need to know that much about the play. I enjoy going to this place.’

@TS:  Melissa, you had described the new space as a laboratory, which I thought was so cool — this idea of alchemy and experimentation. In terms of experimentation, what you’ve gained in the new space is mostly technical aspects, and space, as well as comfort.

MC:  The big thing is, not just more comfort for the artist but I think it’s also going to be so much more comfortable for an audience. And you can get a cup of—er, tea!

DM:  Tea, right.

MC:  Or suggested donation, ya’ know… Anyway, and we have room to do an art showing that goes along with the production. So there’s a room for that. And there’s just more space to interact as an audience member, mingle, talk… So hopefully people will then even stay after the show and continue the conversation. We wanted to create a space where we could carry on some of that summer feeling of the park.

@TS:  Right, sort of carry on the vibe.

MC:  So that people sort of say, “I love going to this place!” And artists are so excited and a lot of people have been coming and helping with the space. Everyone’s just –- the ensemble’s so happy. We have a wonderful community that’s really kind and really enthusiastic.

@TS:  Good people.

MC:  It really is good to have a lot of, you know, kindness to keep you going forward.

@TS:  I’m just fascinated that you two are so similar in terms of your strengths. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever met a couple more…

MC:  We have very similar goals, yeah, which is interesting I think.

April Fritz and Evan Lewis Smith in ISC’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well. (Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography.)

@TS:  The new show. You had said it was one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed plays.

DM:  I wasn’t familiar with the play, but it’s potentially extremely funny in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I always thought of it as maybe one of Shakespeare’s more difficult comedies. But it’s not. There are moments of such silliness, and great giddy fun. And some beautiful writing.

MC:  It has one of the best heroines he ever wrote.

@TS:  A physician.

MC:  Yes, her father trained her to be a physician and she goes on a very foolhardy mission to capture the heart of a man.

@TS:  I don’t know how it ends.

MC:  Well, it doesn’t end all that badly. And it’s in the title!

 

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL performs through Sunday, April 22 at the ISC Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave., #130 (between Fletcher Drive and Glendale Blvd.) at the Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex, Los Angeles, CA 90039.  Free, ample lot and street parking. 

TICKETING PRICES: Generous Admission – $35. Support ISC’s programs. General Admission – $25. ISC’s affordable ticket price. For tickets, please call (818) 710-6306 or buy online at www.iscla.org

Read the review in Stage Raw