When the curtain rises at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre on Thursday (October 19), the cast and crew will transport its audience to the shores of Illyria for the first scenes of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But long before opening night, a community of Barnard students and professionals poured hundreds of hours of physical, intellectual, and creative energy into the production.
Twelfth Night is a story about love triangles, gender disguises, and conflicting desires. Alice Reagan, associate professor of professional practice at Barnard and the play’s director, said the choice to stage Shakespeare’s last comedy speaks to a post-pandemic need for “moments of lightness and grace.”
“The long tail of the pandemic is longer than any of us had anticipated. It still feels like we’re trying to wake up,” said Reagan. “This play offers the chance to wake up and look at who you’re falling in love with. It’s a comedy on the knife’s edge.”
Bringing to the production their own unique sensibilities and willingness to explore that knife’s edge are three theatre artists: Thaleia Dasberg ’24, Sydney Gerlach ’24, and Eden Segbefia ’23, the Digital Humanities Center Post-Baccalaureate Fellow.
Thaleia Dasberg ’24 — Actor, “Viola”
Thaleia Dasberg, who grew up in Sarasota, Florida, is passionate about her craft and came to it early. Her parents enrolled her in an after-school drama program at the age of 5. After she delivered her first and only line in her first play and drew laughter from the audience, Dasberg knew she belonged on stage. “It was the best feeling in the world,” she said. “I came off stage and said, ‘I’m going to be an actor. This is what I want to do.’”
An English and theatre double major who also models part time, Dasberg has had rehearsals five nights a week and several hours each Saturday for the production, for over a month and a half. In addition to all that rigorous rehearsal time, both she and Gerlach are chronicling the show as it develops as part of their individual senior theses.
“This type of thesis work for the theatre major requires you to pull the show together in six weeks and then to also write a paper. It’s quite quick,” said Dasberg.
For Dasberg, playing Viola opposite Gerlach’s Olivia is poignant. The two were roommates during their first year at Barnard.
“It’s so wonderful that we get to work on this thesis together,” said Dasberg. “We really had this arc of entering Barnard together and being interested in acting, and now we get to do our thesis together.”
In Twelfth Night, Viola and Olivia become involved in a love triangle complicated by mistaken and disguised identities. Dasberg, who spent last spring in Berlin studying experimental theatre, said she found her training helpful for this classical theatrical role.
In Berlin, she studied the Michael Chekhov technique of acting, which is based on creating a character by expressing their wants and intentions through physical gesture. “[Shakespearean language] can be hard to follow for contemporary audiences, so I’m taking a lot of that physical work I’d learned and applying it to classical text, and it’s really exciting,” said Dasberg.
Shakespeare’s language can be difficult for modern audiences to decipher if they are unfamiliar with the play, but by bringing her character alive in a physical way, Dasberg said, she could transcend and complement the language.
The Cast, Behind the Scenes
Sydney Gerlach ’24 — Actor, “Olivia”
When Sydney Gerlach — a double theatre and education major — found out she’d landed the part of Olivia in Twelfth Night and that it would be her performance thesis, she was thrilled. Gerlach, who grew up in San Diego, spent last spring semester in London at the British American Drama Academy, which is an intensive training ground for performers, with a focus on Shakespearean acting.
“Every day I go to rehearsal, it makes my heart sing,” said Gerlach. Her character, Olivia, is a wealthy countess in Illyria whose father and brother have recently died. The character is in deep mourning. During act one, Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who — unbeknownst to Olivia — is Viola disguised as a man.
“There are so many beautiful, different shades and dimensions to this character,” said Gerlach. “That's what I love about Shakespeare. Every character in this play is larger than life. The language is larger than life.”
Learning the lines — mostly iambic pentameter verse — took deliberate and concerted effort. The cast worked with a special voice and text coach, and Gerlach embraced the challenge.
“Iambic pentameter is based on a heartbeat; it’s meant to be the purest natural rhythm that humans know,” explained Gerlach.
Eden Segbefia ’23 — Sound Designer
For Eden Segbefia, raised in Durham, North Carolina, a calling to make theatre came early. Their mom is a big fan of the musical Rent.
“I was 3 years old, and she wanted to show me the movie. It was then that I knew I wanted to live in New York and do something with musicals,” said Segbefia, who uses they/them pronouns. “I became obsessed. We did A Chorus Line in high school, and I was operating the [sound] board.”
At Barnard, Segbefia had much on their mind as a scholar. They majored in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, with a concentration in feminist/intersectional science and technology studies. (This past January, they published a scholarly journal article about Afro-Diasporic spiritual concepts as a framework to disrupt the hierarchies imposed by Christian colonialism.)
But Segbefia had also chosen a theatre course in sound design as an elective — and something powerful clicked.
“Immediately, I locked in. This is my thing,” said Segbefia. “Every semester, minus one, I sound designed for a production.”
Twelfth Night is Segbefia’s first professional theatrical assignment. “Because I am nonbinary and identify as queer, I love that this is my first introduction to Shakespeare,” they said. “Gender play is there — I think that’s really exciting, and I want that to come across in my sound design.”
As part of their work on Twelfth Night, Segbefia has composed a few songs, which has led them to want to take voice lessons. “I really like composing and want to learn more and more and get more into it. I am definitely a budding composer,” said Segbefia.
Segbefia is also working on an off-Broadway show this month, Partnership, with the Mint Theater Company.