COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: The Actors Co-op and the Pandemic – An Interview with Heather Chesley

Elaine L. Mura - LA Splash

Registered Critic, Writer

Artistic chairperson of the Actors Co-op, Heather Chesley has stretched her talented artistic limbs through acting, directing, and producing. She has been active at the Actor’s Co-op, as well as the Garry Marshall Theatre, and clearly does not let dust gather around her. Her talents have contributed to the success of a number of productions, including Our Town, Dancing at Lughnasa, The Learned Ladies, and Merrily We Roll Along. Splash Magazine had the good fortune to interview her about the current crisis in live theater.

Cast of “The Learned Ladies” (2012) – Photo by John Dlugolecki

When did the Actors Co-op first begin its long career? Were you involved from the beginning?

Heather Chesley:  I think I was in elementary school when Actors Co-op was founded!  Hard to believe. The company started in 1987 as a group of actors (including our official founder David Schall). Everyone in the company attended First Presbyterian Church, where our theaters are located. They were looking to support each other and their careers in Hollywood. One thing led to another, first with scene classes and then the first play. Then came the first season and the first official theatre opening (now the David Schall Theatre) in 1989. The second theatre, the Crossley, opened in 1995; and now we are in our twenty-eighth season! I joined Actors Co-op around its twelfth season; that was in 2004. This is my sixteenth season! It is crazy to think about how time flies.

Leslie Spencer, Brent Schindele, and Matt Bauer in “Merrily We Roll Along” (2010) – Photo by Gregory Bell

How about some history of your cheaters. How about a brief timeline of changes as they occurred. 

HC:  I joined the company in 2004 and was elected to the Board in 2005. In 2008, I started producing shows for Actors Co-op, and I became artistic chairperson in 2010 – which is what I do today. I took a little break due to my mom’s illness from 2013 to 2014. Otherwise, I’ve been here faithfully.

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

HC:  We officially closed March 13 because of the Mayor’s suggestions. Lee Blessings’ A Body of Water was in its final weekend, and Marvin’s Room was planning to open March 20. A Man of No Importance had just finishing casting.

Cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa” (2016) – Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theaters?

HC:  Here’s the thing. We are lucky. Our relationship with First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood means we can put our shows on hold but open our doors the second the church does. We are in a position to wait alongside our country; and we are in a position to reach out to our community, our membership, our guest artists and our Theatre Guild. We have members who are at risk, some members with families, and some who are at the frontlines in our hospitals. Many folks are out of work. We are working hard to help where we can.

Cast of “Miracle on 34th Street” (2019) – Photo by Matthew Gilmore

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning? 

HC:  At the moment, nothing is streaming. But we are hard at work. Our Executive Committee, public relations, and artistic and production teams are meeting virtually.  We are looking at the shape of the year. There are so many unknowns. We are patiently waiting and looking to ways we can be ready when our city says it’s time to return to the boards.

Joseph Barone and Eva Abramian in “Anna Karenina” (2019) – Photo by Larry Sandez

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

HC:  The community has gone through so much in the last few years with union changes and changes in tax law. But it is a resilient community. There will always be a need for art- and, more importantly, a desire for art. Great art, often comes from moments like this.

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public? 

HC:  For the moment, I ask that you stay home, wash your hands, and love each other. Get yourselves ready to come back to your lives; and, when you are ready, we’ll be here waiting for you at eight o’clock curtain.

What are some of your future plans?

HC:  For the company?  I think for Actors Co-op we look forward to entertaining and provoking thought. We look forward to working on new plays and re-visiting the classics. To crying through dramas like this very real life drama. Eventually to laughing again with our audience. Ultimately we want to provide and share in hope. For me? My future plan? Like the company, I plan to continue on in any way the world and theater allows me.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Elaine Mura moved to New York City as an adult, where she completed her doctorate in psychology and worked in one of New York’s many State hospitals. Subsequently, she decided to scratch a persistent itch to travel and spent ten years living and working in Denmark, Germany, Portugal, and Iran – with shorter stops in the many scenic spots in between. She aplied her skills all over the world doing research, clinical practice, and academic pursuits. Since relocating to Los Angeles, she taught students in the graduate program at Pepperdine University for many years and spent the last 20 years as a forensic psychologist with the California State prison system. But the writing bug forever lay just beneath the surface, and she is currently writing magazine articles and theater reviews while working on a play, a novel, and a book of short stories.