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University Advancement

Media Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler
(818) 677-2130
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Public Relations and Strategic Communications


Acclaimed L.A. Shakespeare Company Sprinkled with CSUN Connections

(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., Sept. 4, 2007) — A helicopter hovers nearby while the wail of a siren can be heard in the distance. But the few hundred people sitting on a grassy knoll at Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood one recent summer night are oblivious.

Instead, the crowd is transfixed on the sparsely decorated stage before them, where Titania, Queen of the Fairies, played by Cal State Northridge theatre lecturer Melissa Chalsma, is verbally sparring with Oberon, King of the Fairies, played by actor Freddy Douglas. The audience, a mixture of families, Hollywood bohemia and longtime theater aficionados, is enthralled with the performance of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

For the past five years, Chalsma, her actor husband, David Melville, and a troupe of like-minded thespians, many of whom are CSUN theatre department staff, alumni and students, have been giving free performances of William Shakespeare’s plays, initially in a small L.A. theater, then in Franklyn Canyon and now Barnsdall Art Park, as members of the Independent Shakespeare Co.

The reviews have been tremendous. "On a barren stage…director Melissa Chalsma and her uniformly talented ensemble transport us," raved Backstage West about the "Midsummer Night’s" production. "Credit director Melissa Chalsma and her first-rate cast for all but banishing confusion with consistent insight into the characters’ feelings and intentions," said the Los Angeles Times reviewer about the show.

LA City Beat went so far as to chide the city of Los Angeles for charging the company more than $25,000 in rent and other expenses for its free performances. "[The city] ought to pay the group that much for providing jobs to actors, plus an exuberant experience in a city park," a reviewer wrote.

Chalsma, co-director of the company and a lecturer at CSUN for the past four years, called the critical support "wonderful" but said it’s the reaction the troupe gets from the audience that is most rewarding.

"One of the things David and I thought about when we first started the company was the contract Shakespeare wrote for. When Shakespeare wrote, there weren’t lighting cues, complex sets or elaborate costumes. The whole point was to engage the audience at some meaningful level," said Chalsma, who started the company with Melville in New York in 1999. The couple met in 1995 while performing in a Broadway production of "Hamlet" starring Ralph Fiennes.

"Everyone gives lip service to honoring the language," Chalsma said. "When you take away elaborate lighting and sets, it gives the audience nothing to focus on but the words and the actor. The company has to engage the audience in an imaginative way."

The company’s repertoire this summer included "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," directed by Chalsma, "King Richard II" and "The Tragedy of Macbeth," co-directed by Chalsma. All of which received positive reviews. Past seasons have included performances of "As You Like It," "Hamlet," "Richard III," "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and "Henry V."

The troupe itself is a mixture of veteran actors such as Chalsma, Melville, Douglas, Maude Bonanni, Joseph Culliton, Danny Campbell (who once taught at CSUN), Thomas Ehas and David Nathan Schwartz as well as a number of newcomers to the Los Angeles theater scene, many CSUN students and alumni Chalsma met while teaching at the university.

"I think it’s important to help young artists get experience and training and be part of the theatre community," she said. "Some of the students at CSUN are exceptionally talented. It’s been great to incorporate them into the company. They bring so much energy and enthusiasm that it’s inspiring for us more experienced actors, who tend to be a little more jaded and tired."

Chalsma has even corralled some of her university colleagues such as movement instructor J’aime Morrison and costume shop supervisor Maro Parin to assist with some of the productions. CSUN theatre major Willy Donica served as the company’s technical director this season.

Jinsoo Choi graduated from CSUN in 2004 as a film major with a minor in theatre. She played the fairy Mustardseed, and the flute, in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

"I’ve been going on a lot of auditions, but there aren’t a lot of roles for minorities in Hollywood," Choi said. "I can’t say the same about the Independent Shakespeare Co. We’re a multiracial cast, but when we get up on stage it’s clear that it doesn’t make a difference what our race is. We’ve become immersed in the character and that’s who the audience is responding to.

"These actors are amazing performers,’ she continued. "I am always looking at their performances trying to learn as much as I can. It’s been just such an incredible experience."

Fellow alumnus Matt Hurley, who graduated in 2006, said transferring to the university four years ago from his home state of Maine was one of the best things he could have done as he pursues a career in acting. He said within days of stepping foot on the campus, he auditioned and won a part in a school play. During the course of his studies, he met faculty members like Chalsma who supported and encouraged his dreams.

"It’s really exciting to be part of this company," said Hurley, who made his debut with Independent Shakespeare last year as Guildenstern in "Hamlet" and appeared in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and "Richard II" this summer. "Every single day I am learning something, and I get to learn on the job and that’s even better."

For more information about the Independent Shakespeare Co., visit their Web site or call (818) 710-6306

California State University, Northridge at 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330 / Phone: 818-677-1200 / © 2006 CSU Northridge