This June the scrappy Independent Shakespeare Company will celebrate its 10th summer of staging free, outdoor plays in Los Angeles. We sat down with artist director Melissa Chalsma and managing director David Melville (who are married) to discuss the troupe's growing legion of fans and their aim to build a new, permanent stage in Griffith Park's Old Zoo. This year’s lineup, which starts June 27 and runs Thursday through Sunday nights until September 1, features the Bard’s Macbeth and As You Like It as well as Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.
How does it feel to celebrate your 10th year of free Shakespeare?
David: Exhausted, jaded, bitter. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago we didn’t have any plan for what we were doing. We certainly didn’t envisage that we would be playing to the numbers that we are and that we would still be viable and paying our actors. The way the public has responded to it has been overwhelming, really.
Melissa: Overwhelmed. That is the word.
You started in Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz in 2004 then moved to Griffith Park in 2010. Tell me about gorwing your audience.
Melissa: Our first Free Shakespeare performance in L.A. had 14 people and a dog. Last summer we had nearly 38,000 people. Our first year in Griffith Park we had about 13,000 people; the next year was 26,000 people. It has pretty much tripled since 2010.
Was there a tradition of Shakespeare being performed in Griffith Park?
David: There used to be raves and love-ins there in the '60s. So if you talk to a certain type of person they have particularly fond memories [of the place] that have nothing to do with Shakespeare or going to the zoo.
City Councilman Tom LaBonge is shepherding a project that would use parks money to build a permanent stage at the Old Zoo. What's happening with that?
David: The funding is all in place. This is a public process. It goes through all the city entities. I don’t think there is any opposition. It is supposed to be ready by next season, 2014.
Are people surprised to discover there's an interest in classic theater in Los Angeles?
David: I think we’ve defied people’s prejudices about what L.A. is like as a cultural town: that people just won’t go out for that sort of thing, there’s the freeways, there’s the fact that’s it is geographically spread out, there’s this, there’s that. But it does work. If you give people a product that they want, they come.
Melissa: If we had to quantify our greatest resource it is hands-down our audience. The thing that has kept us going is the degree of enthusiasm in our audience. It’s on all levels from people volunteering or writing a play or coming or promoting it among their friends. It think we have always tried to foster in our audience a sense of ownership that it is their event, that it belongs to them. More than just performing it for them, it’s theirs.
You have some hardcore fans.
David: It all comes from the goodwill that emanates from our main author, right? That’s what comes from his plays, this great spirit of Humanism.
Melissa: And now kids who had their first Shakespeare experience with us are going away to college. It’s very strange.
The audience is very vocal but also very laid-back with people picnicking and on their phones throughout the play.
Melissa: In Shakespeare’s time people would have been selling food and there would have been chamber pots at the end of every aisle so people could just go pee and prostitutes doing… One of the best compliments we got was After Much Ado About Nothing, a guy stuck his head backstage and said, "It was great. I really felt like I was back in Shakespeare’s time. It really felt like that’s what it must have felt like." The plays must have been slightly chaotic and the audience feels included.
Do you have any favorite moments in the park?
Melissa: By the end of last year, it was like a rock concert. It was insane. There was so much interaction with the audience. [During Midsummer’s Night Dream] when Puck [Sean Pritchett] has to give his final speech and he would play different things [on his guitar]. That night it was Nirvana and this guy in the audience yelled, “Why don’t you stick to Shakespeare?” Really angry. Amusingly, Puck’s next line was “If we shadows have offended.” And the audience just erupted in celebration of Shakespeare’s comeback to this thing. I loved that this guy could think that he could yell that and I loved that it fell in the exact moment where Shakespeare and Sean had the perfect rejoinder and I loved that the audience reacted by cheering on Shakespeare and Sean.
You have a very diverse company. Luis Galindo is playing Macbeth this year.
Melissa: I love that our audience is diverse. It’s like being on the quad at CSUN Northridge [where Melissa has taught] or as Councilman LaBonge says, it is like being at Dodger’s game. You’re seeing L.A.
How do you think on any given night you manage to convince 2,000 people to follow small signs through the park to come see Shakespeare?
Melissa: I think that we’ve managed to create an event that is the perfect style for a Los Angeles experience. L.A. is a city where you go to business meetings in flip flops. Why would you want to go to a theater where you should be talking quietly in hushed tones? That doesn’t really compute for a lot of people. L.A. is so fluid and you kind of are who you say you are. The park event is like that. You can come and lie down. You can be on your iPad, you can text. We don’t make you feel bad about it. Or you can not do that. The actors run through you and talk to you and grab your popcorn. You become part of the play. I think especially for young people, you’re going to tweet about that thing. We try to be part of the event.
Running ISC is a full-time job and you’re married to each other. Is it all Shakespeare all the time at your house?
David: We’re not Renaissance fair people, drinking mead and going huzzah and constantly quoting Shakespeare.
Melissa: It’s our livelihood, it’s our social life, and our poor little kids get sucked into it. We have the kids (Felicity, 11, and Henry, 4) and we have the third child, ISC.