by LAURA HAYES
What would happen if the Mississippi River no longer flowed through Winona?
That’s the question playwright and Commonweal Theatre Director of Development Officer Scott Dixon asks in his play “Endwaters” that will be performed with Theatre du Mississippi (TdM) in October. Auditions for the play will take place on September 6 and 7.
Two years ago, TdM Artistic Director Daniel Munson commissioned Dixon to write a show about Winona for the theater company. In the past, some of TdM’s plays have featured characters from Winona’s past, but because Dixon is not originally from the area and moved to Lanesboro in 2001, he hesitated. “What if, instead, I wrote a play about Winona’s future?” Dixon suggested.
Munson connected Dixon with several community members, and he asked them about Winona’s challenges and future. At the end of every interview, Dixon posed the same question: If aliens came down tomorrow and took one thing away from Winona, what would it be?
All of the community members said the Mississippi River. “If the river was gone, that would have the most impact on Winona’s businesses, tourism, and sense of identity,” Dixon said. Naturally, as a writer, he decided to write a play examining what would happen to the city if the river were gone.
“Endwaters,” Dixon explained, is set 25 to 30 years in the future in Winona, where there is a plan to build a large dam on the Mississippi River that would reduce the water flow. The community is divided — developers see it as an opportunity for growth and environmentalists think it’s a horrible use of the river. The cast of nine represent people on both sides of the argument.
“As a playwright, I believe that a great story is about asking questions, not answering them. There’s definitely not a ‘this is a moral of the story’ as much as I hope the audience walks away and asks questions about who and what Winona is,” Dixon said.
“There is so much, at least historically, of how the river and city have grown up together,” Dixon continued. The Mississippi River has influenced Winona’s culture and businesses, with organizations such as the Great River Shakespeare Festival and Frozen River Film Festival drawing inspiration from the Mississippi in their names. When Munson first read the play, he thought, “Wow, this is daring.”
“The river is part of me,” Munson, who was born and raised in Winona, said. “If it wasn’t there, it would hurt.”
Some of the characters have similarities to some Winonans, though Dixon said the characters don't represent any specific community members. Three characters are featured prominently — Karen, the voice of the protesters, and a brother-sister developer duo named Devon and Robert. Dixon said that Devon struggles with the decision to dam the Mississippi as the play goes on.
While he may have his own opinions (“It would have a profound impact on the character of the city,” he said), Dixon thought it was important to present both sides of the argument. To help craft their arguments, Dixon read local and national letters to the editor and opinion pieces, paying close attention to the recent arguments about banning frac sand mining in Winona County. Sometimes he would watch contentious local government meetings. Change frightens people, he said. “At what point does the debate or controversy in the community stop being about what the original question was about and start to be about personalities and people bringing other agendas to the table?” Dixon asked.
While Munson knows the Mississippi River will never leave Winona, he hopes audience members reflect about when it may be important to take a stand. “There are so many different things we want to fight for in our environment and culture,” he said.
Auditions for “Endwaters” will be held on Wednesday, September 6, and Thursday, September 7, from 7-9 p.m. at the Masonic Theatre or by appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The play will be performed from October 20-22.