Photo By Rick Snizik
Story By Randy Gross (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“If there is sainthood among the crazy, creative, very down-to-earth world of theatre, then there probably is a place for two people who are incredibly talented but use that talent almost entirely to serve others – Clark and Melissa Nicholson.” – David and Katherine Newhouse, from their presentation speech at the 2006 Awards for Distinguished Service to the Arts in the Capital Region
Ask theatre folk to compile a list of the top movers and shakers in the greater-Harrisburg stage scene and names like Jay and Nancy Krevsky and Don and Anne Alsedek would most likely rise to the top. But if the Krevskys and Alsedeks essentially “built” local theater, then it’s safe to say that the next names on that list – Clark and Melissa Nicholson, founders of Gamut Theatre – are responsible for reshaping or perhaps even rebuilding performing arts in the mid-state.
The road to success for the Nicholsons can almost be looked upon as resulting from two combined principles: a Field of Dreams “if you build it, they will come” – or in this case, “make theater accessible, and they will come” – sense of immediacy, and a Life as a House “rebuild this house and wind up rebuilding the community around us” gradual revitalization. Those two separate yet equally valuable visions – and the impact they’ve had in both subtle and earth-shaking ways – are why Clark and Melissa are being recognized as this month’s “Influencers.”
Strong roots, beautiful leaves
Long before they met and married, Clark Nicholson and Melissa Himmelreich were endowed with some very strong, working-class roots. Born and raised in Saluda, South Carolina, Clark started working at the age of 14, toiling at the same place where most of his family worked, the cotton mills. Melissa, meanwhile, hails from the Pennsylvania German town of Millersburg, where the bulk of her family worked from dusk till dawn plowing the fertile Central PA farmlands. The two of them would go on to work a variety of other jobs, Clark inside his father’s sign shop, Melissa waiting tables at restaurants; and later, as husband-and-wife, even peeling potatoes for a local French fry business. These formative years not only instilled an enduring work ethic, but also served as an impetus to do more with their lives than hard labor.
“That’s not where I wanted to be,” says Clark. “So, if I was going to get out of it, I would have to do something to get out of it.” Choosing to “get out of it” by embarking on a career in the theatre, wouldn’t be the easiest thing for others to accept – but what’s discouragement to some people can be a motivating factor for others.
“I think coming from that rural background with not a lot of access and not a lot of encouragement, ironically, was the thing that made me go ‘if this is going to happen, I have to make it happen,’” remembers Clark. “One of the great motivators was people saying people from here [South Carolina] can’t do what you’re saying you want to do. It wasn’t like they were against it. They were just like I might as well have said that ‘I want to go and colonize Jupiter.’”
Adds Melissa, “when we started Popcorn Hat Players [their children’s theater and precursor to Gamut], we didn’t want to wait tables and work on a French fry truck, we wanted to do theater. So, it was a great motivator to try to make money – at theater.”
Though there are a ton of similarities between Clark and Melissa’s upbringings, when it comes to their visions for building a business together – and the kind of business that bears beautiful leaves – they also possess dissimilarities. “She [Melissa] talks about being from good German stock,” explains Clark, “and so her thing is long haul commitments and ‘here’s how we do this,’ and that works for building an institution that goes over a long period of time. I’m much more project-oriented. Like, I’ll go, ‘what do we need to work on for the next 2 or 3 months,’ and then we’re gonna do it.”
But, along the way, there was one goal that their two separate visions always shared: accessibility.
“Because neither of us came from money, and money influenced both of us growing up, we always wanted to make sure we were affordable,” says Melissa. “And yes … accessible.”
Because theatre isn’t only about theatre
Some people whose lives are spent on the stage are consumed by it. Which isn’t bad in and of itself. But when Clark and Melissa first met at The Lost Colony Theatre in North Carolina and began to share their dreams for the future, they not only didn’t want the stage to be an end-all experience, they wanted to stretch and expand the reaches of the stage to be open and receptive to all. And, even more than receptive – also reflective.
“I like theatre,” says Clark, “I appreciate it, I like the history of it, but if I’m only interested in my own medium, then I’m not doing what Shakespeare said of holding the mirror up to nature. I’m just holding the mirror up to the mirror. I think that sometimes, people get into disciplines and they get tunnel vision and they can’t see outside of their particular mode or medium … and there’s a giant world out there.”
Opening that world for all was to become the Nicholsons’ passion, and the route they chose to get there actually became two roads, one planned, the other kind of unexpected – but both ultimately intertwined.
Let’s start with the unexpected …
In the beginning, though they didn’t have much of it, Clark and Melissa weren’t necessarily looking to make a lot of money. It was the early 90’s, they were living on the 2nd floor of Melissa’s childhood home in Millersburg (a town that Clark likens to Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, or Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls), and they merely wanted to earn enough to get a permanent space for their fledgling two-person (soon to be 3-person) touring children’s theatre company. They were – and perhaps still are – self-described “hippies of the 80s,” and so the Nicholsons hadn’t lost their free-loving vibe of – as Melissa puts it – “when we do theater, it will be theater for the people!”
Then, a succession of events occurred that would be earth-shattering, both for Clark and Melissa, and the local theater community.
First, there was the phone call, on January 20, 1993.
Prior to that fateful day, the Nicholsons had driven the forty minutes to Harrisburg in search of the Harrisburg Arts Council and had trouble in finding it. But, once they did, they were thrilled when the lone person on duty – longtime local artist and Arts Council director Janice Radocha – said she was willing to call Mary Roth, director of Tenant Relations and Special Events at Strawberry Square, on their behalf. Janice happily passed on Mary’s response of “send us a proposal,” and Clark and Melissa did just that. Then, they waited with somewhat bated breath.
In a matter of days, the Nicholsons received a phone call from Mary Roth herself, asking if they wanted to “come down and pick out your space?” Of course, they did, but having initially been told the suggested performing space would be the Atrium area, in front of the huge, whirring, whizzing, mechanical clock (and anyone who’s been to Strawberry Square would understand their reservations) Clark and Melissa were hoping for a more acoustically friendly area. As it turned out, not only was Ms. Roth open to the idea of a space apart from the Atrium, she was willing to offer the Nicholsons their space for just a percentage of their ticket sales.
That crazy “little” thing called shakespeare
It was never truly part of the plan. Clark and Melissa both loved The Bard, but they had minimal acting – and no directing – experience with Shakespeare’s works. And they had only been operating out of Strawberry Square for about a year when the unexpected request came:
The Harrisburg Parks Partnership wanted them to come to the newly restored mansion at Reservoir Park to discuss possible usages for the newly refurbished Ralph Feldser Memorial Bandshell, a 1939 structure built as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
Shakespeare certainly wasn’t even on anyone’s radar when the Nicholsons gathered that day with representatives from The Harrisburg Opera Company, Harrisburg Community Theater (now Theater Harrisburg), Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, the Harrisburg Art Association, and the founders of the soon-to-be African American Family Festival. It soon became apparent that most of those in attendance had no real use for the venue (the concrete floors were too hard for dancing, the space was too big for musicians, and visual artists … well, the huge “Bugs Bunny Bandshell,” as Clark likes to call it, didn’t really fit with their vision). So, when it came time for Clark and Melissa to speak, their novel suggestion for putting together a stripped down, seven-actor version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as a single production – was very well-received.
Minimal? Single production? Shakespeare would say “I do not like this fooling!” And Clark and Melissa would discover that their small show with a small cast and even smaller budget (just $500) was something quite other than a fool’s errand. Especially after their friend Tommy Hensel, then in residence at The Shakespeare Theater in D.C., was called upon to direct the show. Apparently, Tommy had bigger, more grandiose ideas.
Fast forward and suddenly A Midsummer Night’s Dream grew into a full, uncut, non-double-cast production with 20 named characters, and Clark found himself not only playing the role of Puck (for the 2nd time in his life), but also designing an innovative dual-stage setting, using a troublesome black curtain to conceal the play’s primary setting. Only, in what was to become a regular element of future Gamut Theatre productions, a contemporary, “stage-stretching” version of the primary setting: a junk yard instead of a forest.
It’s said that, when the curtain went up for the first time there were audible gasps from the crowd – still the largest audience ever gathered for a Harrisburg Shakespeare in the Park – followed by a rare show-in-progress standing ovation.
The rest wasn’t just history. For local theater, it was history in the making.
The planned path
It only goes to figure that Melissa Nicholson’s longtime – and some might say primary passion for outreach to and inclusion of children – only grew stronger as the free Shakespeare in the Park program prospered. Because, even though there have always overwhelmingly been more adult roles than children’s in the Reservoir Park productions, the kids were still a huge part of things – especially during that very first Shakespeare in the Park.
“I remember the neighborhood kids watching our rehearsals and wanting to know what we were doing,” she recalls. “By opening, they had the whole show memorized, knew the story of Midsummer, and could ‘magic clap’ along with Puck. And each year we’ve had a new crew of kids we’ve adopted.”
Melissa credits those kids with being the inspiration for starting an education program at Lincoln School, which led to Ben Franklin School, and then to Camp Curtin School, and from there an established partnership with the Harrisburg School District. Gamut’s children’s theater group, The Popcorn Hat Players (its name gleaned from a Carl Sandburg story read to Clark by his Grandma Thelma) regularly does biannual touring shows for daycare, school, and private party audiences; plus, the popular Gamut Theatre Academy has been empowering local kids – thespians and non-thespians alike – to be “seen, heard, and understood” for more than two decades.
“We’re not trying to make the next Meryl Streep or Olivier,” beams Melissa. “If that happens, that’s awesome. You know, if someone goes on from our company to be a great actor, I love that. But for us, it was more about just giving students the confidence to be able to speak and communicate with each other. We always talk about ‘there are no stars in the play. We all work together like a team!’”
In addition to the various educational and outreach programs that Melissa, Clark, and the Gamut team have been coordinating, they also recently launched a new fund called “Lily’s Legacy,” named for Lily Jordan, a wheelchair-bound student who sadly passed away in September of 2020. Also, soon to bear Lily’s name: an elevator that was installed as part of the second renovation of Gamut’s 4th-street facility, which allowed the building to become ADA accessible. According to Melissa, Lily’s parents will always remember that elevator as their daughter’s “magic portal,” because both the elevator ride and its destination – the Gamut stage – never failed to “elevate” Lily’s spirits.
To donate to “Lily’s Legacy,” contact Gamut Theatre; or look for a link in the future at the Gamut website.
Setting an example
Gamut Theatre hasn’t just been setting examples for kids lately. Last year, during the height of the pandemic, Clark and Melissa decided to “pull back and just think about everything” before doing art just for the sake of doing it. They put their actors in company housing, which gave them a safe Covid bubble. That, combined with a large space and a small staff, plus a coherent set of pandemic rules written by Melissa, made it so that everyone could work safely together. And work, they did.
“We created some digital pieces, that we were able to share with schools and libraries,” says Melissa, “and we created a really cool Julius Caesar digital piece that a lot of schools used as a Shakespeare curriculum … so I was really proud of what we did do.”
“Plus,” adds Clark, “theaters all over the country, because we belong to some international organizations, used her [Melissa’s] stuff as a template for their own theaters.”
Due to Melissa’s swift and precise Covid actions, Gamut Theatre was also able to produce several plays over the past year. Their socially distanced space transformed from a 230-seat hall to a 50-seat hall, and people could buy a single ticket, two tickets, or three tickets together. Everyone also had to be masked, and temperatures were taken.
Now, with virus case numbers rising again, Gamut has joined with Harrisburg’s Open Stage for what Melissa describes as “a unified ‘this is what we’re doing’ policy” that will include restrictions such as either showing your vaccination card or a negative Covid test within 72 hours of the performance.
Building(s) for the future
There are still a lot of shows to put on. Many “mirrors” to hold up. For Clark and Melissa Nicholson, the ongoing mission is for those shows and mirrors to continue to reflect diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. As part of that mission, the Nicholsons are ecstatic at being chosen as hosts for the next Shakespeare Theatre Association (STA) International Conference, to take place in January 2022. Representatives from theater groups from around the globe will be coming to Harrisburg for various workshops, including one taught by Clark on improvisational techniques (an ongoing passion of his), but even more important to the local community will be a five-night series of classic works called Classics Fest, to be produced “with an emphasis on inclusion and diversity” and as a way to highlight organizations and individuals Gamut is partnering with who may not be well-known in the area yet.
“We’ll have a different play every night, and pretty much we’re going to make these available to the public for a five-dollar ticket,” says Melissa. “Two shows here at Gamut, but all the rest are at Whitaker Center, so we can fit as many people who want to come.” More information is available here: www.gamuttheatre.org/classicsfest.
Clark and Melissa are only too happy to continue to fit as many people from the local community – whether they must continue to social distance, or not – into their 4th street theatre. That space, a former church just across the street from Strawberry Square that they moved into in 2015, was renovated in two stages. And, on a parallel plane, Clark continues to renovate his and Melissa’s Victorian home in Millersburg. Which begs a revised connection to the movie Life as a House: as not just one, but two, structures continue to get spruced up, so does the Central Pennsylvania performing arts community.
With that said, one can only hope that the Nicholsons never run out of repairs.