Involved with Berkeley’s Impact Theatre since its founding in 1996, Melissa Hillman is now entering her 10th season as artistic director of the company. Although Impact’s main focus is on new plays geared toward audiences under 30, for most of that time she’s turned her directing talents toward action-packed modern Shakespeare productions. A fifth-generation East Bay native, she grew up in Fremont and now lives in Albany.
How did you get started in theatre?
My first play was either Cinderella or Christmas Carol at the Fremont Community Center. I was 12. I went to Irvington High School, and we did a lot of splashy musicals. I won a classical voice competition when I was 16, and USC asked me to apply to their opera program. I went, and I was there for 35 seconds before I was like, “Whoa, do I really want to do this?” I left that program and I immediately started going to Cal State Hayward. Their opera program was very underfunded, so I had an opportunity to direct very early on. I met with some resistance from the opera singers about things I wanted to do to make these operas more lively and something that I felt more reflected the passionate reality of these stories. I went through this whole thing after graduating, like, “I hate theatre. I’m going to go to med school.” I got a copy of How to Pass the MCAT, and I was like, “Physics? I can’t do physics!” I said, “Okay, I’ll apply to some PhD programs and see if theatre can be my life.” I got into UC Berkeley’s PhD program, and that was it.
How did you wind up with Impact?
Gary Graves, John Fisher and I all went to Cal at the same time. I was Gary’s dramaturge when he was a grad student writing plays, so when he went to Central Works and started writing plays, I went with him. I was their dramaturge and literary manager for a while. They did a play called Kafka’s Dick, and the stage manager was a kid fresh out of college named Josh Costello. He said, “I’m starting a theatre company with my friends. You should be part of it.” I came in as dramaturge and literary manager, very quickly I was his associate artistic director, and then a few years later he left to get his MFA at University of Washington and I took over as artistic director in June of 2000.
Impact has a reputation of targeting younger audiences.
When we started Impact the idea was to have plays that spoke honestly about the lives of younger people. People had been talking a lot in the national theatre community about how difficult it was to get younger people into the theatre, and we thought, “Well, that’s because you’re not necessarily doing plays that they want to see.” Why is a 20-year-old college student plopping down $50 to go see band x, but won’t plop down $15 to go to the theatre? Because they don’t think it’ll be awesome. They think it’ll be boring and stuffy and hard to understand and they’ll feel out of place. So we thought if we make a place for these people here, eventually those people are going to be lifelong theatregoers.
How did you wind up adding Shakespeare to the mix?
I wrote my dissertation on new plays, and if you’d said to me 10 years ago, “you’re going to build a reputation as someone who has a particular approach to Shakespeare,” I would have said, “What? No! I am all about the new voices in American theatre.” Henry IVwas Josh’s idea. He punted it to me when he went to grad school, and I took it and ran with it. I used the same approach that I had used when I was directing opera: that these people are real people and these situations are real situations and there’s no reason to move it out of the period of time that we’re all located in. Shakespeare didn’t do that, so why should I? We thought we would do the one Shakespeare and that would be it. Liebe Wetzel was the very first person to say to me, “I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play,” and I’ve heard that with every Shakespeare we’ve ever done. So I just kept doing them. We thought everyone should love these plays as much as we do, and here is a way to make people who have been told that Shakespeare is really boring and hard to understand that it’s not entirely true. Yes, it can be boring if you stage it boringly. You don’t go to the theatre to watch people stand there and recite poetry and be important. Othello doesn’t know that he’s one of the most important characters in the English language. All he knows is that his heart is breaking. Everybody knows what that feeling is.