From: Charlotte M. Speltz, Ed. D.
Retired professor of counselor education, WSU
“Snowbird” living in Apex, N.C. (formerly of Winona)
Leaving the Shakespeare for Young Actors (SYA), season 11; designers (SYD), season six; and filmmakers (SYF), season one, last night, I was overwhelmed with pride in how far the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) has come in 15 years. Founded by Andrew Carlson in 2007 the SYA group continues this season, directed from afar by Tarah Flannigan, and led by an array of talent within the company. Sets and costumes planned by the designers for the SYA will hopefully have the funds in the future to be realized on stage.
Known for their expertise in filmmaking, Benjamin Boucvalt and Chris Gerson, long-time members of GRSF, this year established the SYF program. Six young filmmakers produced a marvelous film, which brought the audience to their feet. This project surely has cutting-edge potential in the 21st century of social media.
GRSF also fosters education for children from four years through fifth grade for three weeks every summer under the direction of master teacher Kacie Mixon. Closing performances draw audiences too large to fill the small room as these poised youngsters enact fables, folk tales, poems, and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Older children often recite lines from his plays.
New to season 15, the festival atmosphere begins with concerts before every play on the green of Winona State University. Preshow information and brochures explain what the audience should expect from the play. This year the “groundlings” (audience) are more aware of the essential role they have in every performance. Actors intentionally incorporate them into the plays.
In “Shakespeare in Love” the costumes, sets, props and music mirror Elizabethan times, down to details like the wooden music stands and the instruments for musicians. GRSF Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, who has been with GRSF all 15 years, directs this comedic/dramatic production, which creates order out of chaos and brings tears to our eyes with “Romeo and Juliet,” portrayed by Shakespeare and Viola.
A group tour guide was overheard saying with smiling wonder that “‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ has never been done like this!” Under the direction of Beth Gardiner, the play combines hilarity with modern music (incorporated and composed by the versatile Silas Sellnow). The “now-ish” setting just gets better with each performance (and I’ve seen several!).
In “All’s Well that End’s Well” director Rick Barbour softens the harsh realities of an arrogant Bertram and a “no holds barred” Helena with sonnets and a compassionate, forgiving ending. Death and illness affect the lives of all the characters, both negatively and positively.
Jess Shoemaker effectively directs “Venus in Fur,” a provocative modern portrayal of power plays (ploys?) between a man as a director and a woman who comes to audition. Many-layered and complex, the play taps into the perils of becoming vulnerable in any relationship. Family dynamics affect us whether writing a play or living out our lives.
In the apprentice production of “Merchant of Venice,” director Bryan Hunt (10 years ago an apprentice himself) directs a very talented group who delve into the consequences of borrowing and lending, assumptions about religious groups, rulings based on the letter of the law, and relationships between the loved and unloved.
Season 15 has posed questions about the interrelationships of love and intimacy on the stage and off. At a Saturday Front Porch, Tonia Sina, of Intimacy Directors International, brought new information about how to provide safe settings for male and female actors. She also held a workshop for GRSF. Following her five guidelines – context, communication, consent, choreography, and closure – play producers can avoid problems. Intimacy choreography is as important as fight choreography on stage.
This season GRSF plays have reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s comment: “It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.” Certainly, our perceptions are colored by our backgrounds, age, gender, family, race, health, education and social class. When we become aware of this, we can listen more carefully and learn from past mistakes. The keys to any relationship are respect and mutual regard for the other person. These are, of course, the keys to civility in our society. As Shakespeare reminds us over and over, we stray from them at our peril. For this, and more, I remain grateful to GRSF.