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.