BWW Interviews: A Little AS YOU LIKE IT Girl Talk with ISC's Melissa Chalsma

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Melissa Chalsma is one busy woman. As a wife, mom, actor, director and full-time artistic director of Independent Shakespeare Co., which she co-founded with husband David Melville, she knows firsthand what it's like to try and balance more than you think you can. There's always time for a little girl talk though so between juggling kids and rehearsals we grabbed a few minutes to talk about ISC's upcoming performance of AS YOU LIKE IT, how storytelling shapes our world, and those L.A. streets paved with gold. Read on! 

With so many tasks on your to-do list, do you ever wonder how you'll get them all done?

MC: There's this idea that you should find balance, but I think that's really an illusion because everything is always in constant motion. Like many women I'm not very good at compartmentalizing so it's very hard for me to stop working let's say, and focus on homework, and it's also very hard for me to be at work and not be thinking about obligations at home. ISC has been in a growth phase over the last few years and we've finally realized that it's just going to keep on going. I've recently been reading Joe Papp's biography and I think it was Rex Reed who said that what Joe Papp understood was that if an organization wasn't growing it was dying so, for us, growth has been very important. Balancing that with family and life can be challenging – especially when your kids are 3 and 10.

When you started ISC did you imagine it becoming as big as it has?

MC: No, we actually never really planned to start a company. David and I were both acting in New York. We had a lot of actor friends and one day I realized that I was miserable as an actor. Part of it was I was playing a role I had always wanted to play in a production that I thought was so misguided that it was actually painful to be on stage. Really amazing theatre can only happen when actors are 100% empowered to be 100% self-expressed, and then within that a lot can happen. Things can be avant garde or they can be traditional. It doesn't really matter because if you're watching 100% empowered self-expressed people channeling the material, it's engaging.

So here I was in this production where the opposite of that was happening. We'd go out after the performance and all the actors would complain. No one was happy. We finally got so tired of complaining that we decided to see if we could do it any better. The first thing I learned was that it's really hard to produce something good.

What was the first show you produced?

MC: HENRY V. David was a private detective at the time (we both were) for a company that hired actors to put on disguises and patrol places like Chinatown to catch people who sold counterfeit goods, or you might have to sit in a restaurant and look for a guy. He was reading the Village Voice one day and watching a doorway and this guy at a theatre called NADA on the lower east side was going to do all of Shakespeare's plays in one year. NADA was this tiny little shoebox with really low ceilings and David was thinking, what's the craziest play we could do? Let's do HENRY V. It has all these armies. Then of course we read it and there aren't any armies. The whole point is that Shakespeare has written this play about the imagination.

We performed it Tuesday nights at 10:30 pm in February in an unheated theatre, so of course there were 5 people at our first performance. We were on directly after a production of PIGOLETTO, which was, yes, the opera RIGOLETTO with a man in a pig suit. They would always go down a little bit late so we'd be racing to set up and we would just let our meager audience in and watch us set up. That has actually become one of our signatures and it's something you'll still see in the park today. We discovered completely accidentally, out of necessity, that audiences enjoyed seeing the actors getting ready. Theatre has gotten more and more formalized since the Renaissance; we moved indoors, the audience is dark; you're separated by light and space. We always think about how to counteract that because, for our playing style, a formal relationship is inauthentic. It wouldn't be an expression of what we do best.

What brought you to Los Angeles?

MC: We moved to L.A. because I was pregnant. We had a great garden apartment in New York, really inexpensive, but we had to move. My sister was out here and she kept saying, 'come to L.A., the streets are paved with gold.' She sent me a to-do list. Number 3 was, pick up gold off streets. It was our best option so we came out. We didn't really have a plan but eventually we decided to do HENRY V here. We did our shows at The Odyssey the first year and it was really fortunate because we got good reviews and the play was extended.

When did you transition from indoors to outdoors?

MC: We were trying to figure out where to perform next and a friend of David's had been hiking in Franklin Canyon Park. He suggested we do a show in the amphitheater there so we decided to do a couple of performances of MACBETH and make them free. From that experience we found that we liked being outdoors. After that, Lorenzo Gonzalez, one of our company members, suggested Barnsdall. We were there for about six or seven year before moving to Griffith Park in 2010.

This weekend in Griffith Park you'll be playing Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT. What is it like returning to a role you've done before?

MC: Oh, it's so much better. One of the things I always say to my students is that no one wants to tell you that the secret of acting is to know your lines really, really well, and say them loudly and clearly. That's 95 per cent of effective acting. So for me to play a part where the lines are much more under me is so fun because the remembering part of my brain can shut off.

Is it as much fun now as it was the first time you did the play?

MC: This time around it's great because we have some of the same cast, along with some new actors joining us. I'm playing opposite Sean Pritchett as Orlando again and it's really fun to build on that relationship. We've been in so many plays together it's like we're continuing a conversation we started six years ago.

Do you find that you have short hand with each other?

MC: Yes, though as a company we all do now because we know each other so well. It's great to have those long relationships. For example, Danny Campbell, who will be in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM this summer, went to graduate school with me so we've known each other over 20 years. I think that's really rare in the theatre.

Let's talk a little bit about the benefit event you've put together for Saturday.

MC: It's all about creating a family friendly day. Starting at 2:00 pm we'll have five different youth groups performing on our stage, everything from ballroom dance to singing. It's going to be very sweet. We'll also have strolling entertainers, jugglers, stilt-walkers, and activities like face painting and photo booths. At 3:45 Tom LaBonge, our co-sponsor and Council Member from District 4 will speak, and then at 4:00 pm the performance of AS YOU LIKE IT will start. You can bring a picnic and something to sit on and we'll also have snacks for sale. It will be great fun.

Would you describe the play for those who may not be familiar with it.

MC: The word for AS YOU LIKE IT is charming. It's a delightful play full of eccentric little characters and in the middle of this ridiculous comedy it has these moments of real elegance. There's tons of music in it. George Ackles, who plays Amiens, has a beautiful voice and he does a lot of the singing. David wrote the music. There's a lot of physical comedy, wit, romance, kissing. I think at the end of it you'll feel pretty happy.

Is it an easy play to understand?

MC: Absolutely. It has a pretty straightforward plot without a lot of subplots so it's a great one to bring kids to. We did a workshop of it recently at a local school. What was really interesting from my perspective was to play Rosalind for a room full of middle and high school students because I think we have an assumption about how women must have behaved in 'olden times…back in the day,' as the students like to say. Here was Shakespeare writing this representational female who is completely self-actualized, has completely recreated herself, and is absolutely in control of her world, until she can't be anymore. And isn't that what we all have to learn eventually, that at a certain point you actually aren't in control?

How did the girls respond to you playing a girl who is disguised as a boy?

MC: Oh, they loved it. It's delightful to watch people get away with things. That's why we love Falstaff. That's why we love Richard the III. Shakespeare's theatre is a theatre of wish fulfillment. He was writing in a time before cynicism, in a sense, and even in his tragedies redemption comes, but never in the form of someone knowing more than someone else. Redemption is always about giving in to a larger story, like Hamlet or King Lear. AS YOU LIKE IT is this idea that you can recreate your world to be exactly what you wish it was. It also contains a lot more philosophy than some of his other plays. Rosalind has this whole speech about how no one ever died for love. It's a great comment on anti-romanticism.

Do you think the people Shakespeare wrote about were very different than we are now or do you think there are similarities?

MC: I think Shakespeare is a product of his time and he couldn't have written plays where women went out and kicked ass if there weren't women that went out and kicked ass. He wouldn't have done it because he wasn't about social change. There was none of that idea that theatre should be anything other than this glorious, popular entertainment.

If you read Harold Bloom he has this idea that Shakespeare really shaped our perception of what it is to be human. This was how Shakespeare viewed his world, with all its faults and all its strengths. I think we have this assumption about how people behaved, but playwrights weren't just inventing this stuff. They were describing their world. That's what theatre does. It's reflective. Shakespeare himself said, 'hold the mirror up to nature.'

So we see ourselves in Shakespeare's characters?

MC: I don't think we could still possibly enjoy the plays of Shakespeare if we weren't more or less like the people in them. When I see a Shakespeare play I feel like they are such recognizable people. That's part of his genius, that he's able to create three dimensional human beings within a very strict set of theatre conventions. He's a writer who is so good on so many levels. In high school English class, we're taught that he's a beautiful poet. He also creates massively challenging arguments, like in Hamlet, that show him to be extremely intelligent. And he's very witty.

David and I both agree that one of Shakespeare's greatest beliefs is that love is transcendent. What radiates from his plays is this great affection for the human condition, this great delight in our flaws and our strengths, this great power of the imagination. It's explicit in HENRY V but you can find it in all of his plays; the idea that if you speak it, you can make it; that if you can say it…if you express it, you have built it; that human beings have the ability to transform their own worlds. And so characters like Rosalind do that very apparently. She transforms her own world. I think that's one of Shakespeare's fundamental beliefs and what is ultimately inspiring about his work.

You also direct many of the ISC productions. Do you like the big picture point of view that comes with being a director?

MC: We've made a real effort with this company to have all of our actors think like directors because I think it's much more useful to view yourself as part of a whole. And if you view yourself as part of a whole you have to have some sense of the whole. I know that when I'm onstage acting the audience doesn't care what the director said or think about the writing. It's the relationship between the audience and the actor that's most important. So what I think about when I direct is that every ten minutes we should be doing something that surprises or delights the audience.

One of the plays you're presenting this summer is A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, which should give you a great opportunity to surprise and delight.

MC: What I like about our version of MIDSUMMER is that we don't feel a big obligation to bring out the painful. It's a lovely play that's full of love and happiness and we don't mock the mechanicals. They're just lovable, wonderful human beings. It's a delightful play that just fills me with brightness.

Add to that A COMEDY OF ERRORS and THE WINTER'S TALE and I'd say you're building a pretty magical summer season.

MC: We can't help ourselves; we just like to have fun, and the way we do theatre outdoors is what we do best.

Will you be continuing your Players in the Park Series this summer?

MC: Yes, we'll have nine free pre-show workshops, each one different depending on the play you're seeing that night. We have a grant from the Irvine Foundation to do outreach to the Latino community to help bridge a gap in bilingual families where the students are English speakers but the parents might not be English speakers. There are study materials available in Spanish and we have a Spanish language web portal. This way the whole family can come together…the parents can hopefully enjoy it a little more because they've learned about it in Spanish, and they can all share it together as a family. Our goal last year was to double our Latino attendance over two years and we doubled it in one. Our audience is now 19% Latino.

How do you view what you do as a company in the context of the bigger picture?

MC: We believe that these plays are our shared cultural legacy. They belong to everyone so everyone should have equal access to them. Unfortunately there isn't a lot of opportunity for people to go see them. Every human culture has created the theatre because human beings are storytellers. We have to tell stories in order to understand our world and theatre is one of the ways that is being manifested. Yes, it is entertainment, but how we tell our stories shapes how we view our world and shapes the choices we make.

So the great plays of dramatic literature are the culmination of humanity's storytelling and for us to tell a story that has been told for 400 years is meaningful because it makes connections, not just between the actors and the audience, but if you can make a connection to the past, by corollary you're making a connection to the future. You're participating in this conversation that's spanning generations.

But if segments of the population can't participate in that it's a weakened conversation. By making our summer Shakespeare Festival free we're expanding that conversation to as many members of our community as possible. We know there are people in Los Angeles who feel the same way and for those who would like to help support that vision, buying a ticket to our benefit is one way easy way to benefit the entire community. You can purchase a single ticket for $25, a family ticket for $50 (for two adults and as many kids as are in the family), and we've also got VIP seats available for $100 available online at www.iscla.org. All of the proceeds fund the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival.

* * * * * * * *

All the details:
What: ISC's annual benefit, AS YOU LIKE IT
When: Saturday, May 12, 2012
Where: Griffith Park Old Zoo
Time: 2pm pre-show activities, 4pm performance
Parking: Free
Tickets: http://iscla.org/asyoulikeit.html or call (818) 710-6306

Cast: Melissa Chalsma (Rosalind), Sean Pritchett (Orlando), George Ackles, Phillip Briggs, Matthew Callahan, Devereau Chumrau, David Conolly, Joseph Culliton, Thomas Ehas, Luis Galindo, Mary Claire Garcia, Rudy Marquez, David Melville (Touchstone), and Erwin Tuazon. Directed by: CasSandra Johnson. Costumes: Kate Bishop

Photo: Melissa Chalsma as Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT. Photo credit: Danna Deeann 

For more Los Angeles Shakespeare news follow @ShakespeareinLA on Twitter.

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Ellen Dostal In addition to being part of the west coast Broadway World team, Ellen also publishes two popular Southern California Theatre Blogs - Musicals in LA and Shakespeare in LA. An actress, singer and voiceover artist, she is also a producer with the Academy for New Musical Theatre, and works with the development of new musicals across the country.


 
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