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Rise, Shine, Repeat: A Day in the Life of “Discord” Actor David Melville

davidukelele

You’ll have to forgive David Melville for dozing off during his moustache application.

The 46-year-old actor/producer/writer/composer/husband/daddy has been stretched a bit thin lately. He’s already racked up 70 performances (and counting) as Charles Dickens in the Geffen Playhouse’s current production of Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. Now, he’s gearing up to do double duty as the Victorian novelist. On December 1 — the one day Melville has off from Discord — the Independent Shakespeare Co. will present its long-running show A Christmas Carol with Charles Dickens in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse. In typical Tazmanian devil fashion, Melville will play almost every character.

Which brings us to the moustache.

“I never have enough time to grow my goatee as long as Charles Dickens had his, and I know that my wife would not appreciate me going ‘full Dickens,’” says Melville one recent weekday in the Atwater Village office of the Independent Shakespeare Co., which produces the popular Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival and was co-founded by Melville and wife Melissa Chalsma. The happy bonus? A built-in nightly catnap.

We asked the English born-and-trained artist to walk us through a typical day in his life. Ever game and as energetic as his portrayal of Charles Dickens, he did, with plenty of cheeky asides.

6:40 a.m. The alarm goes off. “Melissa has been letting me sleep in during the run of Discord. Today, the cat woke me.”

porridge

7:30 a.m. Have tea and oatmeal. “I went to boarding school — my parents sent me away when I was eight, which is why I have such an affinity with Dickens. [laughs] We had porridge for breakfast every single morning. Porridge is basically gruel. I have gruel every morning with a little bit of honey.”

8:00 a.m. Take kids (they have a six-year-old and a 13-year-old) to school, then head to the office. “Right now we’re working on a play with music, sort of a musical called Red Barn, and I’m writing the music for it. I find shortly after I’ve woken up is when I’m most creative in the day. So I’ll try to get in the office before the staff arrives at 10. If it’s a day I’m taking the kids to school, I’ll come straight here and sit down at the piano. I can’t write music for more than an hour or hour before I shut down. After lunch, the muse is gone.”

11:00 a.m. Staff meeting at the office. “We don’t have any big shows — Doctor Faustus has opened and is on its mini tour to Century City. They don’t call it a mall, it’s an ‘iconic urban center.’ They’re experimenting with ways to bring people to their ‘iconic urban centers.’ That was quite an effort. It’s only a small show but still you have to track in a stage. We had to build it, put it there for two days, then get it out.”

12:00 p.m. Lunch. “Hugo’s Tacos knows my voice now when I call for takeout. Or there’s a good tamale place and they’re only $1.50 each. When we’ve got a big crew in here, we get a big pile of them.”

3:00 p.m. Pick up the kids.

5:00 p.m. Drive to Geffen Playhouse for Discord. “The first day of rehearsals it took me about an hour and a half. I was guessing the way to go and was guessing really wrong. Waze changed my life.”

6:55 p.m. Get into costume. “Habitually, when I work for our company with Shakespeare in the Park, I get dressed about five minutes before show time. I’ll be greeting people or putting out fires — the sewage pump is broken or the electricity’s suddenly gone down and I’ve gotta find a ranger. Doing this show at the Geffen is the first time in 14 years I’ve worked for anyone other than myself! So I don’t have to worry about all the things normally on my shoulders, like ‘How the hell do we pay for all this?’”

greasepaint

7:00 p.m. Put on makeup. “I do my own makeup and use old-fashioned English greasepaint. You can’t get it in America. It’s stuff that was invented in the 19th century and no one uses it anymore. It’s made with animal fat. I love it. It’s quite rejuvenating — it fills in a lot of cracks.”

7:15 p.m. Fight call.

7:30 p.m. Beard application. “I’m always terrified it’s going to come off. One time with Christmas Carol, I bought a really cheap beard and mustache. I wore it one night and it was fine. The next night, I took in a breath and it went [makes a flapping motion]. Everyone was just watching this thing. I ended up saying, ‘Let’s relieve ourselves of this masquerade, shall we?’ And took it off.”

7:45 p.m. Practice ukulele. “If I have any spare time after that, I bring a ukulele with me and practice for 20 minutes or so. We have a little band that grew out of one of our shows. People liked us, so we just continued on playing. We’re doing a Christmas concert on the 15th.”

What he doesn’t do, however, is think about the show or his performance.

“I try to do anything other than think about it. That’s become my process. Otherwise you sit around and get nervous. Things at the Geffen are so organized, I bring my own chaos. Armin (Shimerman, who plays Tolstoy) and Larry (Cedar, who plays Jefferson) are very different — Larry gets really quiet and Armin does vocal exercises. I goof around.”

7:55 p.m. Stage manager gives the five-minute call. “The English system is to call ‘beginner’s.’ I jokingly said to [Maggie, the stage manager] once, ‘I prefer to have English calls.’ So she gives everyone a five minute call and then says, ‘And Mr. Melville, this is your Act I beginner’s call.’”

davidbackstage

8:00 p.m. Places. “I’m always the last one down there. Armin and Larry will be sitting in chairs, and I’ll just pace up and down. I came down and saw this white strip of tape that said ‘David’ and arrows going back and forth. Behind the scenery is a lug nut, and the assistant stage manager pointed out I picked it up every night and played with it. I’m not a superstitious person, but now I have to touch the lucky lug nut.”

8:05 p.m. The play begins. “When the door opens, if the audience makes a noise, we know we’re okay. They’re alive. If they’re silent, we know we’re in for a tough night. We can take the temperature of the room in that one moment. Friday nights can be difficult — there’s a theory that people are a little overambitious about what they can achieve. ‘No, let’s go to the theater!’ And then they have a glass of wine before the show, sit down and want to go to sleep.”

8:05–9:30 p.m. Perform. “You can’t sit back, even after 70 performances, for a moment. The subject shifts with such rapidity, and these are such incredibly bright people — much brighter than me! — so my brain has to do double duty. I’m always relieved when we get past my gospel.”

journal

“We all write in these journals near the end. Larry’s pen doesn’t write, so he can’t play, but Armin and I write stuff. He normally critiques the performance, and I pretend to be Dickens writing a story. I didn’t know the crew read them.”

The crew’s favorite of Melville’s entries, which they’ve tacked up backstage, reads:

“Please help: my agent told me that I was going to do an episode of Dr. Who but I’ve been here for eight weeks and I haven’t seen the doctor or his assistant, just a Thomas Jefferson impersonator and Kenny Loggins!”

9:30 p.m. Curtain call, change out of costume. “A couple times we’ve gone out to the bar but it’s not like you’re in the cast of a musical and it’s a big party every night. On Sunday night we’ll go out and celebrate the end of the week.”

10:45 p.m. Arrive home to Atwater Village, relax. “Melissa and I binge watched Game of Thrones this summer. It’s really fun. I see so many people I know from England! I forage. I snack on cheese and biscuits — I’m not supposed to eat those — and Melissa and I will sometimes have a late-night nacho fest.”

12:30 p.m. Bed. “Crash out. I have quite a chaotic life.”

That’s an understatement.

A Christmas Carol with Charles Dickens will be performed December 1 at 7:00 p.m. Please click here to purchase tickets. The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord runs through December 7. Please click here to purchase tickets. Both shows are in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.

Haithcoat is the Geffen Playhouse’s Communications Editor. Her writing on music, theater and even weddings has been published in LA Weekly, The New York Times, Noisey and Billboard, among others.


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