How Free Shakespeare in the Park Became One of L.A.’s Best Summertime Traditions

Melissa Chalsma, cofounder of L.A.’s Independent Shakespeare Co. with husband David Melville, says she can remember the precise moment during their first summer of performances when she knew the troupe’s free outdoor series would become an annual event.

 

“We were setting up, and it was this fraught, last-minute trying to get everything together for the audience that night,” she recalls. “A woman with her kids asked what was happening, and David said to her, ‘We’re doing a play. You guys should come back!’ She said, ‘Oh, I can’t come to the play. We come to the park because it’s free. I can’t afford to go to a play.’” They explained that it was free, and she brought the kids back for the performance.

After each show, company members go into the audience and ask for donations. Chalsma says there were maybe 30 people there, so they met everyone. “The woman shook David’s hand and thanked him, and the little boy reached in his pocket and pulled out all of his pocket change and put it in David’s bucket. I saw him do that and I thought, ‘Well, I guess this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’ That was it. It was that little boy.”

On June 30, ISC kicks off its 15th annual Free Shakespeare Festival, with performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Titus Andronicus in Griffith Park. Chalsma and Melville cofounded the theater company in New York City in 1998 and moved to Los Angeles in 2001. They did their first outdoor production in a little amphitheater in Franklin Canyon Park one weekend. Chalsma says, “We realized it really suited our style of storytelling.” After Lorenzo González, a member of the company, told them about Barnsdall Art Park, they partnered with the city and prepared for their first production at Barnsdall, Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Kathleen McMartin, a longtime resident of Los Feliz, attended the very first performance in Barnsdall. She and a friend were sitting in the park, waiting for their kids to finish an art class, when cast members handed them a flyer. She says, “It was like The Little Rascals. ‘We’re putting on a show right over here! Come on over!’” McMartin and her friend took their kids to the play that evening. There were only about seven other people in the audience, but she says, “We knew we were in on the beginning of something.” She has attended the ISC productions every summer since. “I’m a huge fan. Because of them, our kids have seen every Shakespeare show there is in a creative, accessible way.”

In 2010, the company moved to Griffith Park to make room for the growing crowds. They set up the stage at the bottom of the large grassy hill near the Old Zoo. Audiences of up to 1,500 people bring picnics and sit on the hill, where they have a great view of the performance.

Chalsma directs both of this summer’s productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Titus Andronicus. She says, “We try to balance having a show that’s recognizable and will pull audiences in, and then hopefully also have a little space to do things like Titus Andronicus which are much less frequently done. That’s a bit of a risk for us because it is a violent play, which makes it less family friendly. It’s a very creepily fun play. It’s dark, but has very strange dark humor in it as well.” (An ISC flyer promoting Titus Andronicus describes it as “Game of Thrones for the Renaissance stage.”)

Aisha Kabia, who plays Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has been with ISC since the early years in Barnsdall. She says, “We were so barebones back then. I would bring it costume pieces, and be like ‘I’ll wear this top in the show.’ Now we’ve got a costume room, a costume designer—and she’s got an assistant.” She remembers it as feeling magical. “There was no budget. We were really making something from nothing. It was just a lot of love and dedication and hard work from people who care about theater and about sharing these works with the community.”

While ISC draws its biggest audiences in the summer, the rest of the year they’re hard at work at their indoor space in Atwater Village, developing new plays, doing experimental productions of classic plays, holding classes, and hosting community events. As for where they’ll be 15 years from now, Chalsma says, “We hope to still be producing theater in Griffith Park. We hope the festival becomes a real Los Angeles summertime tradition.”

That’s one goal ISC may have already achieved. Kathleen McMartin, the woman who became a fan after the first performance, says, “It really is a summer tradition for us, forever.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens June 30 and runs in repertory through September 2. Titus Andronicus opens July 28, with performances running through September 1. ISC is also hosting free events before many of the shows, including salons, dance performances, workshops, and cosplay nights. View the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival calendar for details.


RELATED: I Learned to Love Griffith Park by Spending 18 Hours Straight There 


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