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  Friday September 19th, 2014    

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  (ARCHIVES)Back to Current
The man in the truck (05/25/2008)
By Paul Barnes

Producing Director

GRSF

It only took a day. As I was leaving our office at 79 E. Third Street at the end of my first day back in Winona, a friendly fellow in a pick-up truck stopped at the intersection of Third and Lafayette, rolled down his window and called out, "Welcome back! Good to see you!" Recognizing him as one of many people I've encountered during my five years as a producing director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, but whose name I couldn't quite remember, I shouted back, "Thanks! Nice to be here!"

The next morning, at Winona Radio, which provides generous air time for a series of interviews with company members throughout the season, another person - nameless but familiar - said hello, and told me, "It's great to have you here. It means a lot to so many of us."

It's that sort of welcome that has become something of a ritual each season we return to Winona: the clerks at Target, the stock boys at Hy-Vee, the WSU student who works the night shift at the Nichols Inn, the wait staff at ZaZa's, the guys at Gilmore Avenue Car-wash and Quick Lube and at the Huff Street BP station -- that affirm for us not just our welcome, but the place we're earning in the hearts of many Winonans who feel their lives and the community in which they live are enhanced by the work we do, and who also affirm one of GRSF's founding principles: that Shakespeare wrote for the people -- all of the people, not just an elite or scholarly few.

Of course, there are those who would prefer we'd go away, who make us the scapegoat for what they perceive to be the ills of the community, see in us a kind of threat to the status quo, or suspect we're engaged in nefarious plotting that will lead to the city's demise. For better or worse, I think this goes with the territory. After all, I live in the town that plays host to North America's largest regional theatre company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where only 5% of the town's population attends plays at their award-winning hometown theatre, and where a vocal minority of people proudly proclaim they never have and never will attend "one of those plays." It's an odd kind of pride, but there you have it.

One of the most interesting comments I read among the flurry of letters praising and condemning GRSF that appeared in papers and on blog sites during our off-season was from someone who asserted that Winona will never attract "cultural types"; that its draw will always be the Mississippi River and all of the recreational opportunities that abound here in, on, and around the river. Amen.

But as someone who skis, kayaks, white-water rafts, and bikes, and is lucky enough to live in a town where all of that is possible by day (and in the case of skiing, by night), and where I can also indulge and sate my appetite for the enduring communal experience of sitting in a theatre and hearing a great story told well, I say, "why not both?" Just as there will be Beethoven aficionados who will discover Winona's own Shakespeare Festival this summer (and vice versa), why can't fishermen and women, boaters, and canoeing enthusiasts also enjoy the artistic riches that are taking root in what I have come to think of as an unlikely and slyly deceptive community with far more depths than surface impressions might lead one to believe? Why not have it all??

As I paused at the corner of Third and Lafayette to return the greeting from the man in the truck, I was struck all over again by our office's proximity to a Louis M. Sullivan-designed, National Historic Registered bank that is a landmark of American architecture, a law office and a gun, ammo, and sporting goods store, and an adult book shop, each of which seems to do a brisk business. There is an odd kind of perfection, a cheeky serendipity, if you will, in our juxtaposition to all of these: something very "Winona" - and, frankly, Shakespearean, -- about our nearness and side-by-side existence. Shakespeare knew his audience, and considered sex, slaughter, finance, and law not just major components of the human experience, but inherently dramatic (or comic; often both) subject matter that would attract large audiences to the Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames River more than 400 years ago.

We're here at the city's invitation and because of the amazing generosity of so many donors, sponsors, volunteers, and playgoers. And as long as the city and our steadily increasing audiences see us as a happy addition to the riches and traditions already in place in Winona, we're humbled and honored to reciprocate that welcome. We're getting ready to share three great stories with the community and our audiences this season, which is, by the way, our fifth: Shakespeare's popular and provocative comedies, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, and this year's Apprentice/Intern Company project, Pericles. These are the only plots by which we're consumed and which occupy our thoughts, off-season and on. And in addition to the productions, there will be concerts and conversations and guest speakers and education programs galore. And, it will be over in a flash.

Who would've guessed we'd be celebrating a fifth anniversary so soon? Many, I suspect. When we first came to Winona, skeptics abounded and predictions of a hasty demise were legion. But if Shakespeare - and life - has anything to teach us, it's expect the unexpected. We're bursting with expectation this season, and so very happy to be among you again.

 

 

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