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Interview

Brits Versus Yanks

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British-born David Melville and all-American Melissa Chalsma met in 1995 when they were cast in the New York run of the West End production of Hamlet starring Ralph Fiennes. Their marriage quickly followed, as did their commitment to produce Shakespeare that observes the confines that faced small Elizabethan companies: no sets, lighting cues, or elaborate costume designs—just the actors and the story. Their Independent Shakespeare Co. and its decidedly naturalistic Henry V, having played New York, is at the Odyssey Theatres through Nov. 26. Melville portrays the king—once the boyish Prince Hal, now grown and about to fight at Agincourt on St. Crispin's Day. Chalsma portrays Chorus—as a stage manager, bringing actors and audience together. She and eight other fine actors play the remaining roles.

The couple met with Back Stage West before a line-through to offer their thoughts on their respective training and insights—particularly on Shakespearean acting.

David Melville: We have a similar approach to Shakespeare, which is very conservative. We understand the need for having good skills vocally, a good technique for speaking the verse correctly. That means metrically correct.

Melissa Chalsma: I don't know that I agree if it's correct. I think just an understanding of what the verse form is can help you—that it's iambic pentameter, that you can observe line endings. It is true the verse is written in such a way that it has clues about meaning: which are the stressed syllables, what are the times Shakespeare chooses to break the verse and what does that mean—and if you're sharing lines with other actors, what does that say about the rhythm of the scene. I don't obsess about it. I don't only do what I think the verse is supposed to be. I definitely think people should speak like humans when they're doing Shakespeare. But if the play is written as a long poem, in an artificial structure, it would behoove you to know as much about that structure as you can.

David: I think people get confused when talking about the plays being in verse. They think that means it's very rigid metrically, which is frightfully boring. When you're listening to a good verse speaker you're barely aware that they're speaking verse. It sounds and flows very naturally.

Melissa: But you understand them better. If you don't have a lot of experience with Shakespeare, wherever you're from, you're more likely to break it up in an odd way. Sometimes the effort to make sense of it makes it make less sense. You go too slowly and take lots of pauses and stress words too strongly.

More Pints Than Importance

David: It's not specifically an American thing—you get it in Britain, as well—but I see actors making the same mistakes: rushing, seeking to impose too much emotional interpretation. It's a very common mistake, especially with Shakespeare, to start from exploring the character's situation emotionally rather than trying to find the position of the character in the play and how that serves the story. You get a lot of emoting, which is impressive acrobatics but not necessarily very helpful to the audience's understanding.

Melissa: I think the average British actor has a slight advantage because British people tend to use more vocal range than Americans do. I think they have more variety of sounds: pitch, differentiation of vowels. In a lot of American dialects the vowels become the same. And American actors, in trying to overcome that, do a lot of speech training, and it takes years for that training to become incorporated. So you can sound a little stagey for a while, while you're trying to find this broader range. But there's a trap in that, which is that the British can talk "really pretty" without adding a lot of meaning or commitment to it. Although Americans do that, too.

When we did Hamlet I was understudying. The British cast came over, and I was one of four Americans hired. When we were rehearsing, the British actors seemed to have a lot more fun than American actors. After a while I realized they were working hard and took it seriously, but there was a point of pride in seeming like they weren't taking it seriously. There'd be a lunch break and it was tech, so you're not doing a lot of acting, anyway. A couple of guys went down to the pub and had pints.

David: I'll never forget the stage manager having to fish the cast out of the whiskey bar on 46th street, asking, "Is it normal for British actors to drink during tech?"

Melissa: But they were just as hardworking as the Americans, and suddenly it seemed pretentious how American actors can be, warming up, being very serious.

David: When you do a first read-through with a British company, no one gives it anything. You would think these are the worst actors in the world. They read it very flatly. Everyone is sizing each other up. No one wants to be too showy.

Married, With Company

Melissa: After we were married, it took us three plays to not want to kill each other. We'd go home and do nothing but talk about them. I'd have my ideas and you'd have yours, and we'd spend the whole time telling each other why we were wrong.

David: It was mostly staging: "Why are you moving over there? If you move over there, that leaves me upstage, and then the audience won't see me do this bit," etc. It wasn't necessarily interpretive things.

Melissa: That's not true. With this very production we had one. For a long time you took great umbrage at how I was performing the opening speech, "O for a Muse of fire." I was working on making it much more natural and relaxed and connected with the audience's world. So I was doing it very laid back. [Director Brett W. Reynolds and I] were finding this humor in it. You hated it. You would tell me afterwards why I shouldn't do it that way, why it had to be much grander and bigger and taking the time with it. And then I saw that you had a point, that it had to start with a sense of excitement and urgency. You wanted it to sound more poetic. You wanted me to obey the verse more, hit the line ending, and get the spacing. Whereas the director said, "That's good, David, but now the audience is asleep." Now what we have is a happy medium.

And I spent a lot of time trying to get you to stand up straighter. You're a very supportive person, kind of unassuming. You're funny and understanding and charming, but you're not somebody who tells all the stories at dinner. That was carrying over onstage. And Henry is the king and knows he's the king. So sometimes I was trying to get you to physically embody it. And, boy, did you not like that.

David: We do a lot of physical training in England, but over the years it slips away. But you have been really good about making me be much more aware of myself as a physical actor. You've got me on a regimen of yoga, which has been very helpful.

At the start it was hard for us to offer each other notes—not just as people in a relationship but as actors reacting with indignation. In modern theatre you're so inured to taking your notes from a director and no one else that it's become very bad manners to offer another actor a note. But we realized this is how we were going to have to work, and we established that as a way the company works.

Easy Lies the Crown

Melissa: If we had lived in England, we never would have started a theatre company, because that would have been unseemly. Americans have more spirit, more "Let's go do our own work."

David: One of the wonderful things about coming to this country was coming to a place where people would accept me playing Henry V and Macbeth. England is riddled with class systems—once one is perceived as a certain type of actor it is very hard to break out of that particular bracket. There's a lot of barriers to one getting ahead. In Britain I was well accepted as someone who would be playing the Duke of Burgundy and Renaldo and Rosencranz, but I couldn't see myself having a career where I could play Henry V or Macbeth.

Melissa: Don't you think it was also accepting yourself as that?

David: Yes, and that's something that America brings out in you—that you have permission to disturb the universe. I've discovered how to be a lead actor, and that's not something one learns at drama school or playing smaller roles in Shakespeare. You have to get out there and fail and get better at it. BSW

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