NEA helps Independent Shakespeare make poetry in the park

NEA helps Independent Shakespeare make poetry in the park
Erika Soto in the Independent Shakespeare Company's 2016 presentation of "The Tempest," in Griffith Park. (Mike Ditz /)

To borrow a line from Sonnet 18, summer's lease hath all too short a date when the Independent Shakespeare Company wraps up its annual free performances in Griffith Park each September.

The nonprofit has been staging shows in L.A. parks for 14 years, and now draws an audience of more than 50,000 for 49 performances presented over 11 weeks, beginning in late June.


That's made possible partly by the National Endowment for the Arts. Independent Shakespeare received its first grant of $15,000 in 2008, and subsequent grants came in 2015 and 2016 for $10,000 and $15,000, respectively.

The arts champion a more humane worldview, they champion a sense that we are all connected.

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Applying for an NEA grant forces an organization to step up its game to a new level, said the company's artistic director, Melissa Chalsma.

"The application process is so comprehensive and thorough that at the end of it you've really proven your case that this money is going to be well spent and has a benefit to the community," she said.

The recent grants have been helpful because they strengthened the company's case for support as it approached individual donors, from whom the company derives nearly 65% of its annual operating budget of $750,000, Chalsma said.

Independent Shakespeare Company produces new and classical plays year-round in its indoor studio space in Atwater Village, in addition to creating community outreach programming that includes Shakespeare workshops in local schools. NEA grants are used strictly for its summer festival programming.

The 2016 festival included "Richard III" and "The Tempest." The company said $7,500 of the grant money went toward artist and designer compensation, and the remaining $7,500 went toward construction of the stage and sets. The total budget for the festival is $400,000.

This summer Independent Shakespeare Company will stage "Measure for Measure" and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." Thanks to the kind of research required for an NEA grant, Independent Shakespeare knows its audience is racially diverse, with nearly half identifying as other than white. The audience also is young: Almost two-thirds is 35 or younger. More than half of the audience earns $50,000 a year or less.

"The arts champion a more humane worldview, they champion a sense that we are all connected," Chalsma said of the company's mission to bring a diverse community together to experience the performance of classics. "They help us come together as human beings to consider the human condition."

Plus, she said, in what many consider difficult times, the arts provide needed diversion.

"It's a relief," she said. "Which I don't think is a small thing."

Or as Orlando said in "As You Like It": "Live a little; comfort a little; cheer thyself a little."

"L.A. Without the NEA" is a daily series looking at a different community group, how its NEA funds were spent, what artistic or public good did or didn't result and what the cultural landscape would look like if that program were to disappear. Look for past and future installments at

Twitter: @jessicagelt