- Melissa and Clark Nicholson brought together their love of theater 30 years ago to create a one-of-a-kind organization in Harrisburg.
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This fall, Gamut Theatre Group founders Clark and Melissa Nicholson embarked on their 30th season of combining the worlds of Shakespeare, children’s theater, improv, and education, all under one roof.
Their love of theater goes back even further.
‘SNL’ meets Shakespeare
From the time he was 4 years old, Clark remembers making puppets out of grocery bags, then forcing his family to sit in lawn chairs on the front porch and listen to his stories.
His discovery of “Saturday Night Live” and Shakespeare around the same time ignited a passion. Clark knew he wanted to spend his life somehow bringing those two experiences together.
Melissa didn’t discover her passion for theater until she was in college. Her dream of working in radio came to a screeching halt when she realized that she hated it. At the same time, her roommate roped her into auditioning for a play.
Melissa was hooked.
Popcorn Hat Players and a french fry truck
The stage-enamored duo met in 1990 while working for different theater companies over their summer break.
“We fell in love and decided we would start our own venture,” Melissa says.
They launched the Popcorn Hat Players Children’s Theatre in South Carolina with a mission to provide a fresh take on classic stories.
Then, on a visit to Harrisburg, Melissa and Clark decided to check out the local children’s theater. To their surprise, the city didn’t have one.
They packed their bags in 1993 and moved the Popcorn Hat Players to Harrisburg. A year later, they launched the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival.
For the first three years, Melissa worked a side job as a waitress while Clark operated a french fry truck. They spent their free weekends and evenings performing Shakespeare in the park and children’s plays.
“I never wanted to quit theater,” Clark says, “but I did want to quit the venture a few times.”
“It was really hard for the first 10 years,” Melissa says.
Going deeper and wider
Year by year the theater operation grew deeper roots and wider branches. The children’s theater and Harrisburg Shakespeare Company merged in 2001 to form Gamut Theatre Group.
In 2005, Gamut became an artist-in-residence company. Melissa and Clark brought in full-time actors each season not only to act in Gamut Theatre performances but to lead classes and establish programming. Each resident helps with administration, technical issues, and teaching classes at the Gamut Theatre Academy.
Through the years, Melissa and Clark have strived to make diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion a big part of the theater’s values, even revamping their stage so wheelchair-bound actors could participate.
“As an old white dude, I’ve had a pretty good run,” Clark says. “I need to make sure others get to come to the party.”
Melissa and Clark have been careful to protect their marriage while operating their organization for three decades. Sometimes that has meant personal sacrifices.
“Clark could have been a professional actor in a very large market,” Melissa says, “but he chose our marriage and our family over that.”
“This has been my life’s work,” Clark says, “but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t sometimes ask what’s going on in Chicago. I don’t regret it, but I wonder about it.”
Melissa sensed Clark beginning to burn out several years ago and enrolled him in a long-form improvisation class at actor Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City. While there, he studied under renowned comedian and actor Mike Myers.
Clark brought back the lessons he learned and launched TMI Improv, a long-form improvisation company, in 2007.
Now that they’ve reached the latter half of their careers, Melissa and Clark are more focused on strategically planning and putting systems in place for the next team that takes over theater leadership.
“I think every founder wants their business to keep their values,” Melissa says. “That’s my next 10-year puzzle: how to get that into the workings of the theater even when we’re not here.”