Full ensemble cast of “On The Twentieth Century” for the Davis Shakespeare Festival

Photo: Zoart Photography

More Than Shakespeare

by | Aug 15, 2018 | College Town, Culture

When Gia Battista was still an undergraduate at UC Davis, she gathered a few friends to produce “Romeo and Juliet” in the gazebo at the UC Davis Arboretum.

“I think we scrounged up $100 between us and went to thrift stores for props and set pieces,” said Battista ’11. “And there was an audience — people showed up.”

That 2010 show led to a solidified group with Battista as co-artistic director, incorporation and a plan to produce more on campus. Now the Davis Shakespeare Festival is intent on becoming a large professional regional theater company.

Despite the name, Davis Shakespeare Festival produces modern classics, new works inspired by the classics, musicals and educational programs, in addition to masterworks by the bard. The group produces three shows per season, with this fall’s production of “As You Like It” beginning Sept. 19.

Battista, an English graduate with a theater and dance minor, has worn several hats during the past few years, including writer, director and actor. She’s a trained singer, currently finishing a master’s degree in vocal performance at California State University, Sacramento.

“It’s been exciting to try my hand at all these aspects of producing theater,” Battista said. “I’ve learned a lot just by being in these productions and filling in these blanks. I like being a servant to the overall mission.”

Gia Battista (Tony Nguyen)

But everything started with Shakespeare. She and co-artistic director Rob Salas met at theater camp and performed Shakespeare together as teens. When they founded the ensemble, they originally called it Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, with regular performances throughout the year.

In 2013, Battista produced an original work, “Nightingale,” with workshop production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a performance in Davis, and then at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. The latter honored the production with Best of Fringe recognition.

The next year, the group added a musical to the repertoire with “She Loves Me.” Battista and Salas also moved their performances to the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Davis.

Over time, they have increasingly brought in more professional actors, but continue to work with faculty, staff, and students from UC Davis as well as members of the Davis and Sacramento communities.

DSF's "Mary Stuart"

Ensemble cast of Davis Shakespeare Festival’s “Mary Stuart” in 2018.  (Yarcenia Garcia)

DSF's "As You Like It"

The cast of Davis Shakespeare Festival’s “As You Like It” in the UC Davis Arboretum gazebo in 2013. (Gabby Battista)

Richard Chowenhill ’10 has been DSF’s composer since 2011. He is finishing a Ph.D. in music composition and theory at Brandeis University but continues to return to Davis for DSF, for which he has scored both Shakespeare and more contemporary works.

“Scoring Shakespeare is really interesting because there is a natural musicality,” said Chowenhill, who has scored “Much Ado About Nothing” set in post-WWII Northern California and “As You Like It” in the Ozark region of Appalachia, among others. “[A unique take] is something that’s different about DSF, and I think a lot of our artistic success can be chalked up to that approach.”

This summer Battista directed the company in “On The Twentieth Century,” a fast-paced musical farce set on board a passenger train from Chicago to New York in the 1930s. Charlie Lavaroni, who is going into his junior year at UC Davis, was part of the ensemble cast.

“I played four different characters every night, so besides a half-hour break at the top of act two, it was about drinking a lot of water and a lot of quick changes,” said Lavaroni, who will return to DSF as Touchstone in “As You Like It” next month. “It was so much fun and challenging.”

Summer also brings DSF’s Camp Shakespeare, an outdoor education program for kids and teens. Through theater games, acting workshops and movement classes, participants touch upon many aspects of performance during a two-week period.

With roots in Davis, Battista said DSF is focused on longevity and sustainability among the local community. The mission is to make Davis a destination for theater.

“We started by doing plays for no money in the arboretum. DSF really has elevated the caliber of live performance in Davis,” said Chowenhill. “Everyone on the artistic team lives for it. The town already has everything it needs — it seems like the perfect place for this.”