Sontag Shakespeare Festival presents an ode to Shakespeare fests of yore

Actors perform on an outdoor stage in front of a crowd.
Students performed the “Twelfth Night” at the Sontag Greek Theater Shakespeare Festival on March 26th. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

The 16th century world may feel leagues away from modern life, but Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” shows that the two may not be as different as they seem — crushes, love, drinking and pranks are features of both college life and the play. 

Building on this idea, the Sontag Greek Theatre Shakespeare Festival was an afternoon full of sun, fun and the Bard, developed around a student production of “Twelfth Night.” The event took place Saturday at Pomona College’s Greek Theatre and featured two parts: lively festivities at 3 p.m., then, “Twelfth Night” at 4 p.m.

The festival was the joint senior thesis of Roei Cohen PO ’22 and Owen Halstad PO ’22, who are both theater majors. Friends and collaborators since their first year, the two first explored doing more traditional senior theses — such as acting in a Pomona theater department show — but found themselves wanting to do more.

“[We thought that] putting up our own festival … would be a much more meaningful culmination of the work that we’ve both done on these campuses for the past four years now,” Cohen said. “[It’s] just a much more interesting challenge in terms [of] we get to build community, … we get to invest in the growth of people other than ourselves.”

As a result, the two decided on doing a production of “Twelfth Night” with an accompanying festival before the show.

“The festival, we thought, [would be] a really great opportunity to reframe people’s relationship with Shakespeare [and make] it more closely in line with how it was originally consumed,” Halstad said. “People would go and get drunk, and tickets cost the equivalent of five pounds now.”

A woman wearing a pair of goggles sits in a red dunk booth.
Pomona College’s president, Gabi Starr, was dunked at the event. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

In this spirit, the festival had many activities for students to partake in — from face painting to food and drink to a dunk tank with Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr. The festival also included character summaries of the show to help familiarize students with the play before watching it.

“I had attended maybe one or two [Shakespeare productions] in the past, so it was a fun new experience for me,” festival attendee Serena David SC ’24 said. “This was probably more enjoyable because it was a student production, and there were a lot of other students watching … so it was really fun to go and support them.”

Those involved with the play believe the cheerful spirit of the festival reflected the community spirit infused in the production from the beginning.

“It was communal and friendly, which kind of reflects the process in that it was just about bringing everyone in and integrating everyone into every step of the process,” Sebastian Barnhill PZ ’25, who played Count Orsino, said. “Creating that kind of community event feel before having everyone sit down silently as an audience made it so that it kind of felt like we all knew each other, and then that drove audience reactions, because it was a very reactive audience.”

From the onset of the production process, Cohen and Halstad worked to make the play as collaborative as possible by consistently consulting every member of the 11 person cast. For Barnhill, this principle was evident from the first day of the casting process and helped shape his positive experience with the show.

“[Cohen and Halstad] asked us, ‘what are the types of roles that you do not want to play?’” he said. “[It] was great, especially for those of us like me, who tend to get typecast, so I could explore new things.”

In addition to focusing on the execution of the show itself, the rehearsal process for the show also included cast bonding moments, such as a “She’s the Man” movie night and a group trip over spring break.

“It’s just very remarkable how well Roei and Owen were able to bring us together and bring this very different group of people into a space and get us feeling comfortable together,” Barnhill said. “And then not just feeling comfortable, but loving each other.”

“The festival, we thought, [would be] a really great opportunity to reframe people’s relationship with Shakespeare [and make] it more closely in line with how it was originally consumed. People would go and get drunk, and tickets cost the equivalent of five pounds now.” 

Owen Halstad PO '22

As the date of the festival drew nearer, the cast did everything in their efforts to promote the festival, from making business cards to knocking door-to-door at people’s dorms encouraging them to see the show.

“Perhaps the culmination of surprise [is] when you’re knocking door to door at Mudd, and a Mudder opens the door and [is] just like, ‘Are you the Shakespeare people? We know, we’re coming,’” Halstad said. “That’s when we were like ‘Okay, so clearly we have done something sort of out of the ordinary.’”

The cast’s marketing techniques worked: the day of the festival was sunny and bright and saw hundreds of attendees, including not just 5C students but also members of the local Claremont community and even some family and friends who had flown in. Cohen and Halstad view the overwhelming response to the show as a manifestation of the cast’s care and effort.

“Everyone in the ensemble, by the end of the process, was ready to give their souls to make this work,” Halstad said. “I think that the response we got … is a response affirming that all the actors that were going door-to-door cared so much about [the play] and were able to communicate that so earnestly.”

Ultimately, those involved with the production feel that it represented some of the most unique and special features of performing in a college environment. 

“We both very much feel like this is a thing that you only really get to do in college,’” Cohen said. “It just feels really special and such a wonderful culmination of the growth of all those people [from] over the course of the four years that we’ve spent here.”

Editor’s note: TSL managing editor Caelan Reeves CM ’24, a member of the “Twelfth Night” cast, was not involved in editing this article and did not review it before publication.

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