When juniors Olivia Johnson and Olivia Dargis got the idea to stage Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, they knew there would be hurdles. But the co-directors decided they would do whatever it would take to make it happen – and even add a few twists. “Everyone is craving something artistic and it was really important to make that happen,” says Olivia J. “With all the stress on and off campus, we just wanted to bring joy to people. We wanted people to have fun.”
And fun, they brought.
On the twelfth night of November, despite “bone-chilling cold” and spitting rain, students, faculty, and administrators gathered from all corners of campus, carrying their lawn chairs and blankets to enjoy an escape into an 80s prom-themed version of Twelfth Night, complete with all the fashion and colorful effects that mark that decade. “We wanted it to be upbeat and to bring some levity,” says Olivia D. For just one hour on one night only, the student-led production brought to the Walker’s community a magic-filled reprieve from a most trying year.
But getting to that evening was full of lessons in patience and perseverance.
Theater faculty director, Shannen Hofheimer, better known to students as “Hoffy,” says that when she read the email from the girls in August proposing to carry on with their student-directed production, her initial reaction was that she was incredibly proud of them for wanting to take on such an ambitious project under such restricting circumstances. “With all of these obstacles, it’s a really important time to show everyone that theater and the arts can persevere,” she says. But she also remembers worrying about the big hurdles to come, including if students would be hesitant to audition or if the show would have to transition to Zoom as the result of a possible shutdown. Despite the unknowns, she was ready to assist the girls in bringing their vision to life.
After gaining Hofheimer’s support, the two Olivias got to work right away, spending the next three months working through a plethora of details. The production was more complex than anything they had ever directed in the past, and the pandemic posed its own unique set of challenges. To start, all the actors would have to wear masks and stay six-feet apart on stage, so the directors needed to think about how to convey romantic feelings between characters if the actors could not utilize physical affection, as well as how to compensate for facial expressions, now hidden behind masks.
They took the challenge head on. The girls worked with the cast in being attentive to the effectiveness of different stances, certain gestures, and even tone of voice in bringing out what the masks were hiding. “I’m really proud of the cast and everyone involved because they were really devoted to the show and really made it happen,” says Olivia D.
The co-directors also began taking on the challenge of how to convert one of the campus’ new outdoor tents into a performance area. They spent off-time in the costume shop, sifting through bins for all the color and shimmer they could find, and bought string lights to dangle from the perimeter of the tent to add to the festive atmosphere. Bringing a bit of twinkle and glitter was all part of the girls’ idea to bring the audience into this world of revelry.
And when they put out a call to the Walker’s community to try out for parts, students from all grades showed up. “It really took a village to put on this production,” says Hofheimer. Still, there was the very real possibility of someone becoming sick and having to drop out. The co-directors and Hofheimer knew that they may have to be prepared to understudy any role in the show on a moment’s notice, and the student directors spent their extra time outside of rehearsals working with actors on text analysis and line memorization, both in-person and on Zoom.
Hofheimer says it was inspiring to witness the dedication and “sheer grit” of the group of 30-plus students to make this production happen. Given social-distancing rules, she saw them learn how to fully embody the characters rather than rely on physical touch. They powered through mic troubles on the night of the event. And they carried on despite terrible weather and soaking wet equipment. “Getting through this taught us all that we could get through anything,” says Hofheimer. “What this pandemic has taught me is that our students are incredibly resilient. It helped me to let go of the idea of perfection and realize that the students being able to just come together was really the goal.”
When the campus did come together, they were treated to a night of revelry unlike any other Walker’s theater experience. A dance performance kicked off the evening, and ushers handed out handmade Ventian-style masks on sticks made by Emma Paterson ’19, who offered to lend her artistic skills to the production while she attended college remotely. Ms. Helmin, a dorm parent who greeted girls as they returned all abuzz from the production, says it was a night to remember on campus. “They were all wet and shivering but completely energized.”
And while the directors chose Twelfth Night because it was a play they knew well, rereading it in the middle of 2020 gave them new insights into the enduring relevance of Shakespeare. “We found that the script was really fitting in these times,” says Olivia J. “At the end, everything clicks into focus and it all ties up.” As we head into the new year with this promising message, our two student directors agree that if there is anything this theatrical experience brought to light for them this year, it’s this: the arts are essential.