The 31st Fall Festival of Shakespeare
A CELEBRATION LIKE NO OTHER                                             By Eliza Keenan

Every year, students from around Berkshire County have the opportunity to engage with Shakespearean plays, work with professional directors, and take part in an experience unlike any other at the Fall Festival of Shakespeare. The process, organized by Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, MA, begins in ten different high schools in and beyond Berkshire County. Two directors from Shakespeare & Company are assigned to each school, where they hold auditions at the end of September. The auditions are designed for the directors and students to get to know one another, and to have fun. After the auditions, the play is chosen based on the particular group of students, and is announced when the cast list goes up. A different Shakespearean play is chosen for each school, and the rehearsal process begins!

Students and directors begin the rehearsal process with “dictionary work.” Students spend weeks researching almost every word in their text. The idea behind this is for students to understand what they are saying, and to also gain the skills to comprehend complicated and sometimes archaic language. Directors then lead students by asking questions and, in turn, encourage them to understand their characters. What drives them? What do they want? What’s at stake if they don’t succeed?

Just as integral to the process as acting is technical work. Along with their role, every student receives a technical job, which is often a place on one of many committees. The committees include lighting, sound, costumes, music, run crew, stage management, and publicity. A number of students exclusively do tech jobs. This year’s stage manager Maggie D’aniello, a junior, was a vital part in bringing the show together. “Fall Festival has taught me a lot about what it takes to put on a show. I have gotten to work with professional production designers and technicians because of Fall Fest and I wouldn’t have been able to get that anywhere else,” D’aniello said.

While the students at Monument are undergoing this process, students from Waldorf, Mount Everett, Lenox, Lee, Mount Greylock, Taconic, Springfield, Chatham, and Taconic Hills High School are as well. One night a week, students from every school have the chance to come together at Shakespeare & Company during “Common Class.” The four Common Classes are consistent each year. They are, in sequence, “Fighting and Combat,” “Dance and Movement,” “Tech,” and “Performance.” In them, students have the opportunity to practice imaginary sword fights, experiment with stage combat, learn various dances from the Elizabethan era, examine the ways in which movement can tell a story, work on set pieces belonging to a number of schools, explore the world of technical theater, and prepare themselves to perform their show in front of an audience.

Common Class is a significant part of the Fall Fest experience, for it gives students the opportunity to get to know one another. A high schooler from Great Barrington can meet a high schooler from Springfield and find his best friend. Nick Kierstead, a freshman, recounts a similar experience. “I went into the first Common Class knowing pretty much no one and nothing, but after ten minutes I started to make jokes with a kid from another school and soon we just hit it off and had an amazing time. Over the course of the night me and him became really good friends, and it only got better as the Common Classes continued.” Alongside this, the simple experience of being surrounded by hundreds of other young people, bonded by a shared passion for Shakespeare, theater, or even just the festival, is a magic in and of itself. “This year I sat back and took photos of the Fight Common Class, so I got to just watch everything,” says senior Will McLaughlin. “Watching everyone let go of everything and fully put themselves into the space is a really crazy experience. Just being there makes you feel happier and like you’re part of this giant community.” After the last Common Class, new friends temporarily part to perform at separate schools.

After set build, during which students construct their set and create their props, and tech week, during which they stay after school until 8:00 pm for five consecutive nights to rehearse their show with all the technical elements in place, the cast performs its show on the stage at Monument for friends, family, and teachers. This year, Monument put on Twelfth Night, or What You Will, a comedy about the pleasures and pains of love – the conventional and the unconventional, the requited and unrequited, the heart-wrenching and the ridiculous. The performances took place on the 14th, 15th, and 16th of November and were as former student Chloe Charbonneau said, “magical, beautiful, and absolutely spectacular.”

Almost immediately after the in-school performances, the students take their show to the stage at Shakespeare & Company during Festival Weekend. All shows are performed in the same theater: the Tina Packer Playhouse. The majority of the theater is reserved for Festival students, who are not charged to support the work of their peers. This year, Waldorf High School kicked off the Festival with its production of The Comedy of Errors, and the other shows unraveled, back-to-back, in the span of four days. On top of the fun, all who participate in Festival understand that there’s something uniquely special about it. Kevin Coleman, the director of education at Shakespeare & Company, always says, “it’s not a competition; it’s a celebration.” And that’s exactly what takes place at Festival: a celebration unlike any other.

Festival audiences are composed of hundreds of students from every school who cheer, laugh, hiss, cry, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the story being told onstage. “The audience that the festival brings is the most supportive and enthusiastic audience that anyone can ever hope for,” said senior Alyssa Kend. “Your Shakespearean jokes that nobody might have understood at your home show will suddenly get huge applause, and it fuels the energy of the shows so much. Being in the audience is just as important, though. Being surrounded by so many other students, all crammed shoulder to shoulder in close quarters, while enjoying and giving praise to the hard work of others makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.” The Festival ends with a closing reverence, in which students say goodbye to the experience with a unified dance. Thus, Festival ends in tears, laughter, and gratitude, much like the shows themselves.

After the closing reverence, students were asked to speak to their experience at Festival, and to articulate what it has meant to them. Their answers speak to the undeniable strength of a community, the inexhaustible power of friendship, and the everlasting impact of an environment that celebrates creativity, bravery, and vulnerability. 

Junior Liam O’Gara said “in some ways, Festival feels like it’s less about Shakespeare and more of a program to teach young people how to do what’s real and what’s right, and his works just happen to be the medium through which these truths are expressed.”

Cody Hawley, a senior, said that he’s “never known an easier way to make lifelong friends.”

“It’s for sure one of the most welcoming and supportive environments I’ve ever seen, and I’m beyond happy that I chose to be part of it,” commented sophomore Carlin Beacco, who quit a sport she’s been playing for years in order to join Fall Fest. “Choosing Festival over soccer was a really hard decision, but I think it was the best choice in the end. I met some of the best people through Festival and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”

“Basically I just wish that more board members and legislators would come and see these shows, because it’s so clear when you enter the theater just how important this festival is to the students, and how life-changing it can be,” said Sammy Rusk, a junior who has participated in Festival in recent years. “It’s so incredible to see just how much love and passion goes into these shows and the Festival, by the students and the directors and all the people behind the scenes. Even people who have no idea what the Festival is can feel the energy and excitement. There is literally nothing like it.”

“Ultimately,” said Maggie D’aniello, “Fall Festival is more than just a show. It’s a family that I am proud to be part of.”