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Mom and Pop nurture the Bard

Times Staff Writer

A faux-medieval turret rises above the front door of a little house in the remote Chatsworth Lake Manor area, on the northwestern fringe of the San Fernando Valley. Gargoyles peer at anyone who uses the bathroom.

Though the medieval castle touches in the architecture of Melissa Chalsma and David Melville’s house are courtesy of the previous owners, they also suit the current residents just fine. After all, it’s the headquarters of their mom-and-pop theater troupe, Independent Shakespeare Co.

As the couple talk on a recent off-day, their daughter Felicity, 3, zooms in and out of the room. Nearby, the actor who plays the title character in their “Richard III,” Lorenzo Gonzalez, is working on improving a blood effect -- even though the show is already open, along with “Hamlet” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Independent Shakespeare Co.'s plays are performed far from this cozy abode -- near another kind of castle, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House, atop a hill in Barnsdall Park that overlooks Hollywood.

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Figuratively as well as literally, the company rises above most of the other Shakespeare-in-the-parks outfits in L.A. It’s the only such group in the city of Los Angeles that’s producing its own shows on a union contract this summer. (Shakespeare Festival/LA, which normally produces on an Equity contract, presented an Equity-contract company from New York this summer instead of producing its own shows.) Half of the Independent’s $40,000 summer budget is used to pay the company’s 18 actors. Reviews have acknowledged the professionalism at work.

“On a bare stage, with minimal props and costumes, the company combines keen acting insights with the entertainment values that Elizabethan audiences took for granted,” wrote David C. Nichols in The Times.

Steven Leigh Morris of the LA Weekly found a “deeply satisfying testament to the company’s classical and vocal training. The need for size inspires bold acting choices, as lucid and refreshing as the breezes that kept slicing across the knoll.”

For the past decade, Melville and Chalsma’s lives have been inextricably linked with Shakespeare. They met in 1995, playing small roles in a Broadway “Hamlet” starring Ralph Fiennes. Melville, who is English, was in the earlier British version of the same staging. Chalsma grew up mainly in Massachusetts. After a wedding in England, they landed in New York.

When they started their company in 1998, they called it “Independent” as a nod toward their ideas about actors’ needs. “If you want to design a system to disempower people,” Chalsma says, “you could design the system of acting in this country. Getting a job is a job in itself.”

For Melville, the name also indicated his fresh start in America. In England, “I couldn’t see how I could graduate” beyond the small role he played in “Hamlet.” In his own company, he would get to play Hamlet.

The Independent presented its first production, “Henry V,” in 1999 at 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights in a tiny, unheated New York theater. It followed another group’s performances of “Pigoletto” -- “ ‘Rigoletto’ with a pig,” Chalsma explains. “What were we thinking?”

One night in New York, they heard gunfire outside the theater. A police officer entered and asked if they were creating fake gunfire. They weren’t.

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Frequently performing for only a handful of spectators, they developed their bare-bones style out of necessity but learned to like it. They change their unadorned costumes onstage, occasionally take the action into the audience, and use no lighting cues or amplification.

The couple say they were inspired by the stripped-down production style at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. “By having to listen carefully, the audience becomes more observant,” Chalsma says. “It’s the best style to optimize the audience’s imagination.”

They reward the listening with plenty of laughs. “Shakespeare never separated his plays into tragedies, comedies and histories,” Chalsma says. “We find that in the so-called serious plays, the sublime and the ridiculous rub shoulders.”

IN June 2001, the couple moved to L.A., thinking it would be better for child-rearing. Chalsma, who serves as the artistic director and an actor in the troupe, teaches theater part-time at Cal State Northridge. (She also privately works with actors on dialects, including coaching Seann William Scott in rural Georgian for “The Dukes of Hazzard.”) Melville was the host of a now-canceled British ITV series, “Movies, Games and Videos,” that taped in Burbank.

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The company’s L.A. debut was at the Odyssey Theatre with “Henry V” in 2002. L.A.'s theater is “more fluid” than New York’s, Melville says. Here, smaller theaters “are so established that audience members don’t make the distinctions” between the smaller and the larger.

But Chalsma finds it a mixed blessing: “It’s toxic if plays can run for 80 performances and not pay actors” -- which only slightly exaggerates the standard policy at most small L.A. theaters.

The Independent performed a short run of one play at Barnsdall last year. This year it expanded -- to a larger space that accommodates about 300 people, and to three plays in repertory. Next year the company hopes to add a fourth performance each week and use a contract that provides actors with health benefits.

The productions are audience-friendly -- and not only in their interpretations of the texts.

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Earlier this summer, when evenings were nippy, Chalsma took time out during the intermission to offer the costumes that weren’t needed during the rest of the play as temporary wraps for theatergoers.

When police helicopters buzz by -- which seems inevitable in Hollywood on a summer evening -- the actors often pause and respond in some cleverly crowd-pleasing way. “It’s nice to have something to surmount together,” Chalsma says.

Admission is free -- a potentially risky policy for an actor-paying company that’s too young to qualify for major grants. But the cast collects donations after performances. The average theatergoer chips in about $5 -- and this passing of the hat pays for about half the company’s summer expenses.

A few more substantial contributions have arrived, but Chalsma and Melville say they will make up the rest of the expenses from their own pockets. They’ll probably ante up about $15,000 this summer, Melville estimates.

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When the summer ends, Melville will have to decide whether he’ll retain his spiky bleached-blond hairdo -- certainly a distinctive look for his Hamlet (“he’s Danish”) and his Proteus in “Two Gentlemen.”

“I thought I’d get compared with Olivier and Branagh,” he says with a sigh. “What I got was Vanilla Ice.”

*

Independent Shakespeare Co.

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Where: Barnsdall Park Great Lawn, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays (“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”); 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, next Thursday and Aug. 28 (“Richard III”); 7:30 p.m. this Sunday and Aug. 27 (“Hamlet”)

Ends: Aug. 28

Price: Free

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Info: (818) 710-6306; independentshakespeare.com


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