by LAURA HAYES
To a thunderous applause, Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Board Chair Fran Edstrom announced that Virginia native Aaron Young would assume the role of the festival’s managing director.
“It’s wonderful to be here. I appreciate this warm welcome I’ve had from the board and from the community,” Young said.
Young recently traveled to Winona from Lancaster, Penn., where he served as the managing director of the Fulton Opera House. Although Young studied theater performance at Brigham Young University in Utah, he said that he knew that he didn’t want to become a professional actor. “I liked putting down roots and having some stability,” he explained.
Young grew up in northern Virginia, and during summers in high school and college, he worked at the National Theatre in Washington D.C. Young said that he was impressed with the managing director at the time. “He was always there, smiling and greeting the audience and connecting with them. I had no idea what he did. So when I went to college, I wanted to learn more about what it would take to run a theater,” Young said.
Young said that his background is primarily in the business-side of the theater industry — audience development and focusing on building and connecting with audiences, marketing, fundraising, and facility management. “I liked being around actors, but I was never comfortable being an actor. It takes all for me to be comfortable in my own skin let alone take on a character that isn’t you,” he said. “But I like the creativity of being around actors and the insight that they provide. I’ve learned a lot from performers and artists in general.”
Being an administrator, Young said, is a way for him to help the artists be able to do their work. He added an administrator works to shine the spotlight on someone else, which he enjoys. “If someone wasn’t out there raising money or selling the tickets, they wouldn’t be able to create. I’m excited to create an environment where they can then create,” he said.
He’s lived across the country — working as general manager at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in Missouri and the managing director of the theater program at the Sundance Institute and marketing manager of the Sundance Film Festival. Young said that he decided to move to the Midwest after seeing an ad online for the GRSF position. He had worked with GRSF founder and former artistic director Paul Barnes when he came to the Fulton to direct Michael Frayn’s play “Noises Off.” Impressed with his work, Young reached out to Barnes when he saw the managing director ad for GRSF. “He said, ‘You should definitely pursue it. It’s a wonderful town and a wonderful company and a wonderful board and audience,’” Young recalled.
After learning that he got the job, Young grew excited to join the festival. “The board and the members of the community that I met wanted me [to come] and that was very gratifying and satisfying to feel that there was that level of interest,” he said. “Now I have to deliver on all of their expectations. The bar is set high because I know that they have big desires for the growth of the festival.”
Young is married and has three daughters. His youngest daughter is a senior in high school, and after she graduates the family plans to move to Winona. In his free time, Young said that he enjoys knitting, going to the gym, and playing and listening to music.
Young may be new to GRSF, but he’s a fan of the bard’s work. His favorite play? Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy “Hamlet.” “It’s the one I’ve seen the most. I like the searching, the uncertainty, and the struggle that’s in ‘Hamlet,’ and I like the different ways that actors interpret it,” he said.
While Young is excited to jump into the 14th season of GRSF, he admitted that his head is swimming learning the ropes of GRSF. By joining the GRSF team, he hopes that he can help increase the festival’s revenue. “I want to see our audiences grow,” he said. “I want to see us have sold-out performances and work with pricing so that everyone in the community feels like they have access to the festival and it’s not just for people who have money.”
When asked about his ideas to expand the audience, Young said, “A large part of what I’ve done is just be present and let people know that GRSF is an active part of the community 365 days a year.”
He explained that that could include participating in community initiatives and going to other events throughout Winona. By getting involved with other organizations and events, Young said that it made other community members want to get involved with GRSF’s projects. He said that he wanted to get into the community to learn who was coming to GRSF performances and what might bar someone from attending. “And working to drop down those barriers,” he added.
In addition to getting to know more Winona community members, Young said that he’s looking forward to seeing the shows and seeing how the community connects to the plays' themes.
Since moving to Winona, Young said that he’s fallen in love with the area and the community members. Over the weekend, Young went to the winter market to buy a tart. Realizing that he was a few dollars short, the woman behind him offered to loan him $2 to buy the tart. He said that he was amazed by how welcoming Winonans have been. “I thought, ‘What a community,’” he said.