ISC’s David Melville on Hamlet, L.A. Theatre, and the Road Ahead

Over the last ten years Independent Shakespeare Co. has grown in popularity to become one of L.A.’s best-loved summer events. Thousands of children and adults attended their 2011 summer of Free Shakespeare in Griffith Park, which included a Hamlet that had audiences raving. That production is now playing in ISC’s Atwater Studio starring the company’s managing director, David Melville. David and I sat down to discuss how playing Hamlet has changed for him over the years, as well as what the future holds, and how he learned to play the ukulele. And that’s a story that will surprise you.

What is the appeal of taking Hamlet and moving it from Griffith Park to an intimate space like your studio for another run?

DM: It’s really rewarding to play. The last time we did Hamlet in the park we had 1750 people in the audience and then when we did it last weekend we had 40. When we do it outdoors we don’t have microphones so it’s big. We’re a very dramatic company and we don’t shy away from that, but in the studio you can whisper and be heard. It really makes us explore the nuance and subtlety, which will hopefully inform what we do next summer too.

Why choose Hamlet?

DM: It’s a play that we’ve visited many times and this is our fifth rendition. We’ve been working on it for about seven years now and it’s really exciting for us because it’s such a deep play. We’re finding things now that we can’t believe we missed before.

Do you view the play differently today than you did when you worked on it the first time?

DM: Hamlet can take a different journey every night because one thought will change and that opens up a whole new world. I think we’ve always managed to successfully create a Hamlet that’s dynamic and moves with a lot of action. It can very easily become a passive play because there’s so much introspection in it. From our very first production we were conscious that we wanted to make the monologues and the philosophical parts of the play active and dramatic. I think that’s something that was intentional by Shakespeare.

Intentional in what way?

DM: The play really exists on the brink of a moment, and how Shakespeare draws that out over a number of acts. From the ghost telling Hamlet he has to take revenge, to the revenge happening, he goes through a whole process and, in that process, explores the nature of life and all those big questions. Madness is a subject that really fascinated the Elizabethans. This time we’re really noticing how Hamlet’s faking the madness really resonates around the court and how some people don’t believe him. We’re catching lines that make the motivation of the other characters so much more interesting and we’re getting to know Gertrude and Claudius and Ophelia better.

When I saw Hamlet this summer I was struck by how much humor there was in it. Did you intentionally try to make it funny or was the humor in the text?

DM: Shakespeare has a sense of humor. I know that’s shocking to some people but Shakespeare was very interested in how tragedy and comedy worked together. That’s one of the things that he explored in the second half of his career more than anything else and it actually upsets some people that Hamlet is funny.

Do you think they consider it irreverent?

DM: Yes, but that’s really an 18th century notion. After the Restoration Shakespeare’s plays were re-examined and performed and became this noble work of this great playwright and they had this great worthiness attached to them. They would cut out a lot of the humor, like the Porter in Macbeth or the bawdier parts of Much Ado About Nothing, but the Elizabethans were actually much more earthy and well-rounded. I think our company really tries to connect with its rough edges. It’s wonderful stuff.

How does that lead you back to Hamlet being funny?

DM: Hamlet is a very witty and ironic person. The play is about his self-examination and he’s quite merciless. If you play the irony in those situations it ends up being funny. Even a line like in the middle of the closet scene – the imagery of him describing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his two school fellows whom he trusts as he does adder’s fanged – that image is beautiful and perfect, but it’s also funny. I don’t think it’s wrong for an audience to see the image, connect that with the treachery of these two people, and laugh. I think that’s entirely appropriate

Does the humor work the same way in both spaces?

DM: It’s interesting how the play plays more comedic outside. You’ve got a really bawdy kind of groundlings type of audience in the park who bring their picnics and are there to enjoy the whole experience. It’s a celebratory community atmosphere and when we move into the smaller space it naturally becomes more intense. That’s not to say the humor isn’t there.

You have a personal history with Hamlet, don’t you?

DM: Yes, it was the play that brought me to America. I was in Hamlet on Broadway in 1995 with Ralph Fiennes playing Hamlet. I played Renaldo, Hamlet’s servant who is sent to Paris to spy on Laertes. That’s when I met my wife Melissa [Chalsma, and ISC’s artistic director]. She was understudying Ophelia and she was a lady in waiting at court. That’s how we met, and then we got married, and then we started the Independent Shakespeare Co… so we owe Hamlet a lot. Then it was the production we did in 2005 that was our first big hit and really put the company on the map. We had been playing to audiences of 50 or 60 in Barnsdall Park and all of a sudden 300, 400, 500 people were turning up and it was amazing. Then when we did it in Griffith Park this last summer the numbers went crazy.

Speaking of Griffith Park, do you have any unusual stories from last year’s season?

DM: One of my favorite nights was when this party of horse riders turned up. I think they were just riding through Griffith Park but they saw the show and they came by and dismounted, and they stood there with the horses and watched the whole show and the horses watched the show and people came and pet their horses at intermission.

Was that during Hamlet?

DM: It was actually Love’s Labours Lost and it was funny because we had the guys pretending to ride horses and they were fake galloping up the hill and they suddenly ran into these real horses. People loved it.

People really do seem to love the company. Why do you think they connect with you the way they do?

DM: I think we’ve worked hard to create an environment that isn’t like normal theatre. We’re accessible. There’s a relationship you can have with us that’s beyond what’s happening onstage. You arrive at one of our shows and you’ll see the actors hanging around putting their make-up on and chatting to the audience. We’re excited to meet people and find out who they are and why they’re there. We’re there before the show. We’re there after the show. During the show we’re romping around in the audience. At intermission we’re out among the crowd.

It sounds like you include the audience as part of your whole experience.

DM: There’s never ever been a fourth wall. The whole event is about building a community. It’s like a big party. You come along and you’re sitting down on your blanket and you’re next to someone you’ve never met before and you have to squeeze together, and in doing so you might meet someone who is from a completely different walk of life. Our demographics are crazy because there are people from everywhere. Over 50% are non-Caucasian. 30% are under 18. And certainly about 60-75% are under 35. It’s a very young and diverse crowd.

And it’s not just the plays or us. It’s the environment. There’s a whole magic to being in the park that really works. It just seems to make everybody happy and that’s really what we’re about…creating goodwill. It’s sort of an entry level theatre experience and we really hope that people come to us and then decide they want to go and explore other companies as well because that’s the mission.

Have you found challenges producing theatre in Los Angeles?

DM: Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country and it’s got a theatre scene that is not commensurate with that. It doesn’t serve its population. The intimate theatre scene here has some really exciting things happening but there’s a small audience that goes to it so it tends to serve the same people. Then you have the larger theatre scene…I don’t really know what that is. I’ve never really been drawn into that. But there is no mid-size theatre scene apart from ISC and the Colony and a few other places. The 99-seat theatre agreement has made it very hard for there to be a middle class of theatre in L.A. and that’s one of the things we’re trying to address.

What do you think is the key?

DM: I think you have to engage people’s imagination because when you do, you make them aware that they’re smarter than a lot of arts organizations would have them think. I go to see plays and I’m often scratching my head trying to figure out what’s going on because I’m trying to follow the directorial concept or the great thrust of whatever thinking is behind the production. There’s some great art out there. There are some very intellectually exciting things happening and there’s some very broadly commercial stuff but there’s really something missing when we don’t engage the actual public.

How do you see ISC growing in the years ahead?

DM: We’re very ambitious. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if we weren’t. Our intention is to be for Los Angeles what the Public Theatre is in New York. We’ve already created a Shakespeare Festival that’s becoming that and I think in the next few years that hopefully is going to solidify. I would like to see us find a 200-300 seat space indoors where we could produce some forgotten classics and foster new writers by producing new plays. I think we’re a very modern company in the way we produce Shakespeare. I’d like to see how we’d be a modern company in the way that we would work with new writers.

Is it difficult to find funding?

DM: I always look to the 19th century in terms of how to effectively run a theatre. In the 20th century this idea of municipal theatre that can’t sustain itself so it has to be funded from outside sources and has to have massive foundation or government support in order to exist has gotten overblown. We can sustain our Shakespeare Festival and we don’t charge for tickets. And we get very minimal government and foundation support but we run a lean organization. It’s possible to do and I think we can grow this, but free is the new economy, and you have to find a way to make that work. The public wants to support it and they will support it with money, just not in the old way.

There’s no denying that budgets are tight.

DM: If you look at the cost of a theatre ticket in 1901 and the cost of a theatre ticket in 2001 it’s completely out of whack with everything else. People expect them to pay $35, 50, 65, 100 for a ticket to see a piece of theatre. As artists we’re encouraged to believe that what we do is important but it’s not worth more than the price of admission to the cinema and until theatre can make itself competitive with that, well….if you can sell $10 tickets to the theatre all of a sudden you’d have thousand seat theatres filling themselves. We didn’t invent free Shakespeare in the Park by any means but I think we’ve found a way to do it that works. We really follow the Internet as a model.

What do you mean by following the Internet?

DM: You provide content for free and then find other ways of monetizing it.

Where do you get your funding?

DM: It’s mostly individual donations. We’ve always managed to fund about half of the season through the bucket donations and sales at the show. Then there’s some foundation and government sponsorships and individual donations that trickle in throughout the year. And whatever else we can do. We’re always doing something to raise money. The budget’s half a million this year.

That’s quite a leap from your first year isn’t it?

DM: In 2003 it was $5000 so it’s gone from $5000 to $500,000 in ten years. That’s still peanuts for the kind of thing we’re actually doing, so in the next couple of years we need to see that grow.

How do you decide what to do in a season?

DM: At the moment we’re sort of consolidating. It’s a combination of plays we haven’t done before that we want to do and what’s going to make good business sense. This summer our more dramatic choice for the Festival is The Winter’s Tale. Our other two plays will be The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And going forward?

DM: In 2013 we might revisit Richard II and do some slightly more daring plays in the park. We’re also looking ahead to what kind of programming would be exciting for us to do in the studio. We could do Henry VI there because there are only 49 seats and it’s less of a risk. We’ll be doing more like that, along with some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and readings of new plays.

Are there any roles you’d personally like to play?

DM: Shylock and Richard III, and probably King Lear one day. Dr. Faustus I’d like to do. I’d love to do some Noel Coward plays but I feel that’s too obvious these days. And we’re always talking about doing Chekhov.

Do you think you’ll ever tour?

DM: We did do a European tour over the holidays with our Charles Dickens play. With Shakespeare, that may be part of our five year plan. We may create two separate companies – one in residence and one to tour – so we can have two things happening at once.

Does that mean you’ll be expanding your company in the future?

DM: We get a lot of people asking how they get involved in the company and that’s one of the hardest things because we’ve become an ensemble quite naturally, and without a lot of forethought. We’ve become a family of sorts and so the way people find their way into the group is not the normal route.

And the ukulele…have you always played?

DM: I started learning the ukulele when I was doing King Lear in 1996 at Ludlow Castle. There was an actor, Mark, who played and I thought it sounded so great. He had bought a George Formby ukulele that used to belong to George Harrison and I’m a real Beatles fan. Mark used to play for the Queen Mother. She liked to hear George Formby songs so he used to go up to the palace and play ukulele and I just thought that was so cool. There was a junk shop and they had an old banjolele for sale and I bought it. It never really worked properly but then someone lent me a vintage Hawaiian ukulele and I started to learn on that. I’ve always played the guitar and then I started writing some songs on it. I’ve written a couple of songs on the ukulele that have been used in films.

And there it was this summer in the Festival.

D: It’s useful. You see ukuleles a lot in Shakespeare nowadays but not many people play the banjolele and not many people can play like George Formby, which is what I’m working on. Now I’m learning the piano because I think that’s kind of cool to have on stage.

You can catch David and the rest of the ISC players in Hamlet Saturdays and Sundays at 5:00 pm. The run has already been extended through March 17. For tickets and more information go to

Directed by Melissa Chalsma, Juliet Wong (Stage Manager)
Cast: David Melville (Hamlet), Luis Galindo (Ghost, Player King, Gravedigger), Bernadette Sullivan (Gertrude), Sean Pritchett (Claudius), Mary Guilliams (Ophelia), Thomas Ehas (Polonius), André Martin (Laertes), Ahmad Enani (Horatio), Erwin Tuazon (Rosencrantz, Osric), Richard Azurdia (Guildenstern, Barnardo), Xavi Moreno (Marcellus, Player), Erika Soto (Francisco, Player Queen).

Photo Credit:
David Reynolds: Hamlet – David Melville at Griffith Park
Erwin Tuazon: Hamlet – Bernadette Sullivan and David Melville
Ivy August: Hamlet – David Melville and Mary Guilliams


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Three Theologians Are Trapped In Purgatory… « Observations Along the Road
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