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The Front Porch Series (08/08/2007)
Washington Post and Newsweek columnist Michael Gerson's recent appearance as the final Front Porch Conversation speaker of the 2007 season at the Great River Shakespeare Festival has generated passionate response in the community. What follows may shed some light on the Festival's choice to host Mr. Gerson.

On one level it was an obvious choice. Michael's brother Christopher has been a leading actor at GRSF since our inaugural season. Several members of Chris's family - Michael among them -- were coming to Winona for a small reunion and to see Chris play the title role in our production of Macbeth. We were looking for a third guest for our 2007 season Front Porch Conversations; I asked Chris if he thought his brother would be interested; Chris asked Michael; Michael said, "yes."

But the invitation made sense in other ways. When we first dreamed the Festival -- before Winona city leaders invited us to establish our home here -- we were guided by our conviction that Shakespeare's plays speak across the ages to all times and all lives, that his work would be the center of our Festival, that we would create accessible productions of his plays and provide an array of programming that would reach out to the community and our audience, and that we would be a center for theatre, music, art, and conversation.

We specifically chose the word Festival as key to our identity, and talked about pilgrimage, reflection, and renewal as components of the experience we wished to provide playgoers.

From the first we have seen ourselves as a contemporary Festival and not one dedicated to historical re-creation in production or ambience. Whereas this season's Macbeth was rooted in Scotland, 1040 AD, last season's Romeo and Juliet was inspired by the look and spirit of a young man leaping in the air in an Izod-Lacoste print ad.

The unit set on which we perform (our "contemporary Wooden O") translates physical features of the theatres of Shakespeare's time into modern terms, enabling us to bring our work close to the audience and to achieve the kind of fluid, cinematic lap-dissolve that gives his plays their simplicity and drive.

Our wish to be a contemporary festival is reflected in the spareness of our productions, the clarity and specificity of our text work, the focus and context of our support programs and activities, and in our willingness to make connections between Shakespeare and the important questions of our time. Our opening weekend and Friday and Saturday evenings community concert series have brought an eclectic array of folk, pop, rock, jazz, blues, and classical performers to Winona, and we have hosted a variety of speakers at our Sunday afternoon Front Porch Conversations since our 2004 inaugural season. Besides the eight plays, four Apprentice Acting/Intern Company projects, the numerous concerts and Front Porch talks of our first four seasons, our Festival Mornings and Company Conversations have provided regular opportunities to build bridges between GRSF, our audience, and our host community, as have the array of education and community outreach programs we've created.

Much of the vision that guides the Festival is intentionally grounded in Midwestern values and sensibilities. New England is known for its stone walls and stoicism, the West Coast for small yards, high fences, and limited contact with neighbors. The Heartland offers something different: the welcoming gathering place of the front porch, where people share the stories of their families, their work, and their lives.

It's that sensibility that inspired our Front Porch Speakers series and that has brought 10 very different guests to GRSF since our first season. Although we've hosted Shakespeare scholars, being an expert on Shakespeare is not part of the invitation criteria. We've also hosted actors, authors, arts educators, poet-philosophers, university presidents, and scientists, most of whom find a way to reference Shakespeare in their talks, as did Mr. Gerson, when he applied quotes from our 2007 season productions to his topic, "The Great Causes of our Time," and went on to point out that when Josef Goebbels and Anne Frank can both love Shakespeare's plays, Shakespeare does, indeed, transcend all causes and becomes a cause unto himself.

This is not the first time our Front Porch Conversations have generated controversy. In Season Two, Kerry Egan, an ordained priest, spoke about her book "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago," and used language offensive enough to cause at least one attendee to leave the theatre. Although we don't ask our guests to reveal their political leanings, I'd hazard that most have been of liberal-progressive ideology; Mr. Gerson was our first declared "compassionate conservative" and happened to be the first nationally recognized invitee to accept our invitation to sit on the GRSF "porch".

Up until Sunday afternoon when William Cope Moyers of the Hazelden Clinic and author of the book, Broken, confirmed he would be our guest on July 20, 2008, other notable guests to whom we have extended invitations to join us on the "porch" (Bill Moyers, Jane Alexander, Joan Baez, Village Voice columnist Tom Robbins among them) have been genuinely interested but as yet unable to accept.

When Michael Gerson spoke on Sunday afternoon, the room was tense, intent, and electric. After a gracious, rather personal introduction and a brief overview of his career, including his development as a speech writer and his work in the Bush administration, Mr. Gerson talked about the issues with which he is currently and passionately engaged: AIDS relief in Africa, the situation in Darfur, his work on the Council for Foreign Relations. He was soft spoken and thoughtful, he neither bullied nor harangued, and proved as articulate a speaker as he is a writer. Like other Front Porch Conversation guests, Mr. Gerson did not accept his speaker's honorarium; rather he contributed it to the Festival.

People asked difficult questions and our guest did not shy away from them. For almost 90 minutes we were exactly what we hoped we'd be: a community involved in civilized discourse, grappling with issues that divide and incite us. I believe that many people left the theatre moved by Mr. Gerson's talk and changed in their impression of him by the opportunity to hear him, while others left feeling that they had been treated to an artful and sophisticated exercise in smoke and mirrors. What's important, however, is that we were all in the room together, got to hear from someone who continues to have a direct influence on current events with no outside or arbitrary filter except our own civility standing between us and his words, and we got to make up our own minds.

This experience taught me that it can be difficult to defend our constitutional right to free speech, all the more so if you have differences with the person whose right you're called upon to defend. But I also learned that if we're going to inch our way forward to understanding if not to actual agreement or resolution, it's crucial that we defend that right. In a small but significant way, we chipped away at the current divide that rends our country.

I was reminded that as with Shakespeare's characters, we're complex, complicated people, comprised of many facets and features. I also learned how easily we become our own oppressors when we behave exactly as do those we think of as our enemies.

I am in the theatre because I believe that talking and listening go a long way toward solving the problems we face and toward finding a greater understanding of what it is to be human. I've emerged from this experience with my values clarified and strengthened, which is what listening to another person's point of view will do. In many ways, this was our most successful Front Porch Conversation yet. I am proud of the Festival, grateful to our Board of Directors and to Winona State University for their commitment and support, and humbled by the community we call home for helping to create an extraordinary moment in time, and for making the Great River Shakespeare Festival one of the most unique theatres in America.



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