UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 17 Fall 23 Library
Viola (Chloe Rogers, center in red hat) takes on a new identity as Cesario as the Twelfth Night ensemble, including the skaters of De La Roll, celebrate. Photo: Jack Looney.

Twelfth Night: A Community-Engaged Performance

Standing backstage in Culbreth Theater on the opening night of the UVA Drama Department’s spring production of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night last spring, theatre neophyte DeTeasa Brown Gathers would have had plenty of reason to ask, “How in the world did I get here?” 

It was an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience and I am so grateful we did it!
Courtney Commander

And therein lies the story. 

The answer starts with another question. Gathers, and a host of other locals, ended up on the stage because the show’s director, Dave Dalton, looked at a high-profile production of the show that was done in New York combining professional actors with community members and asked himself, “Why not here?” 

Toby Belch (Pat Owen, left) rejoices as Sir Andrew (Sean Miller, center) shows his dance moves.
(Photo: Jack Looney)

“I had a longtime interest in community-engaged theatre,” Dalton said, “and I read about a production of this musical version of Twelfth Night being done by Theatre Public Works, which is headquartered at the Public Theatre in New York. We had been looking for a musical, so when I saw this, I really pushed for the opportunity to do it.” 

The Illyrian Officiant (DeTeasa Gathers, center) marries Olivia (Gabrielle James, left) and Sebastian (Thad Lane, right).
(Photo: Jack Looney)

The project was officially launched thanks to a Faculty Research Grant for the Arts from UVA Arts and the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts. Dalton soon found the perfect partner to pull it off in Jessica Harris, a UVA Drama grad who currently works on ways to use the arts to connect community members at the UVA Equity Center. “I was super excited to work on this production,” Harris said, “and particularly to work in that space between art and community, which I think go hand and hand and can be used in so many ways to empower each other in a way that I think benefits everyone.” 

The community outreach began with identifying organizations that could bring value to the production both onstage and off. “We had different tiers of how folks could get involved,” Harris said, including organizations who could share their missions with audiences by tabling in the lobby and others who could join the actors onstage. “We basically asked ourselves, ‘What is the Charlottesville we wish to see?’ The one that is inclusive and accepting, and filled with empathy. One of the essential themes of the show is seeing the world through the eyes of another and walking in one another’s shoes.” 

Director Dave Dalton and Music Director Kristin Baltes led the ensemble in a warmup before rehearsal.
(Photo: Jannatul Pramanik)

Or, in one case, rolling in one another’s skates. The production tapped the community group De La Roll to perform in a vibrant opening number that allowed the troupe to strut their stuff and set the tone for an evening of fun, adventurous, and meaningful theater. Later, young members of the Charlottesville Ballet Academy would showcase their talents in another scene. And when the Bard writes a boxing scene, who better to pull it off than boxers? Enter members of the Wartime Fitness Group, who were happy to climb out of the ring and into a new kind of spotlight. 

The skaters of local Charlottesville roller skating experience De La Roll wait backstage for their parts in the Twelfth Night Community Ensemble.
(Photo: Jannatul Pramanik)

The opportunities were not limited to theater novices. Many of the “Illyrian,” a group of townspeople who appear throughout the musical, and in this case intended to reflect the people of Charlottesville, are played, and sung by members of the local theatre community who may not normally have an opportunity to be part of UVA Drama productions.

Just as important as having community members represented on stage was making sure that the community was properly reflected by the production itself. Dalton and Harris selected Gathers, a noted community activist and descendant of the enslaved community in Charlottesville, to serve as the show’s community dramaturg. Gathers met with the cast several times to share her experiences. In addition, the cast met with several other nonprofit community leaders throughout the rehearsal process.  

While Gathers initially signed on to assist in the community aspect of the project, she would soon be offered a different part onstage, as a wedding officiant in the musical – a role that would find her using her voice in a different way altogether. “They started off by saying, ‘You will just have to sing for a minute. I said, ‘Wait, did you say SING?’ I mean, I had sung in my church choir years ago. Other than that, I just thought I sounded pretty good in the shower!” 

“This was definitely a whole community effort,” Gathers said. “I saw the difference that was made by bringing all these people together to be part of the conversation and to show that it takes community to truly make things work. It was so nice to see the way people responded when you looked out into those seats every night and saw many people who you might not normally see at cultural events around town.” 

Reflecting on the experience of the show, Harris is clear that the significant challenge of incorporating the community into the production was more than worth the effort. “It was one of the most meaningful productions I have ever had the chance to work on. There are so many wonderful bridges that can be built between UVA and Charlottesville, and theater is such a wonderful tool to build them. This is, at its core, what theater is designed to do, and this was such an amazing opportunity to bring folks together to experience the magic of live performances.” 

Dalton is already working to use the success of this production as a springboard to future community efforts. “We have heard such tremendous feedback from people on this show, and I have started to see opportunities to continue to incorporate community members into future productions,” he said. “This has really made me aware that there is a real hunger out there from people who want to be more involved. We are already getting requests from groups, including those who were involved in this production and brand-new ones, to be a part of a similar production in the future. One of those groups has made it very clear that whenever the next opportunity arises, they are ready to roll. 

“It was an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience,” said Courtney Commander, founder of De La Roll, “and I am so grateful we did it!”

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