It was apparent from the warm response and hearty "welcome back" the GRSF company received at Saturday night's "Chocolate, Shakespeare, and Champagne" benefit for the Winona County Historical Society at the Alexander Mansion, that people in Winona have grown accustomed to having a Shakespeare Festival set down in their midst - and look forward to our return each summer. A large and appreciative crowd watched and listened attentively to our "sneak preview" of scenes from The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice (our 2008, fifth anniversary season productions opening next week at the WSU Performing Arts Center theatre), and seemed delighted to be among the first in town to know what's up at GRSF this summer: individually distinct productions of two of Shakespeare's most absorbing, challenging, provocative, and popular plays - each with it's own "look", but linked, we hope, by excellent acting and direction, professional design work and production values, and by the clarity and specificity of language for which GRSF is known and that makes Shakespeare's plays much easier to understand than many people believe.
Some would consider dedicating the work of a theatre company to producing plays by Shakespeare an act of bravery in this day and age. After all, we've almost entirely lost the oral tradition in our society, Shakespeare is taught with diminished confidence in schools (if it's taught at all), contemporary entertainment does not ask us to "lean forward" in the shared, communal way most good theatre productions do, and though he wrote in English, Shakespeare composed his stories when a much larger vocabulary was needed to deftly navigate most aspects of day-to-day life. But we soldier on, guided by our conviction that Shakespeare knew how to entertain a crowd, and that his infallible ability to shed light on the human experience is what inspires millions of playgoers around the world to return to his work again and again and again.
For those of you who have not yet discovered Winona's (no longer) "best kept secret," and who may feel trepidation about attending a production of his plays, I want you to know first of all: I'm with you. As a high school student, I, too, hid behind the textbook whenever we read a play by Shakespeare in class, hoping against hope that I would not be called on to respond to the questions posed by an earnest and diligent faculty. As Casca tells us in Julius Caesar, "it was all Greek to me." But here I am, a few decades later, helping to lead one of America's newest theatre companies dedicated to Shakespeare's plays, growing evermore confident in my ability to share his compelling stories with a world eager (and, in many cases, I know, not so eager) to hear them. But as with so many things in life, the reward is in the long haul.
So for the trepidatious, here are some things that will help ease you into what may seem a completely foreign land.
Our Community Forum, co-sponsored with Winona Unified, at which we'll talk about the plays, the productions, and the issues they touch upon: this coming Monday, June 23, 7:00 PM, WSU Performing Arts Center.
Our "Skeptic's Night", Saturday, July 12 (The Taming of the Shrew). Enjoy one of our weekend Prelude concerts before the show, while chowing-down a brat, some lemonade, and all the fixings. Discounted tickets for first-timers; all you need is to talk a GRSF "veteran" (or convert, as we prefer to call them) - someone you know who has been to our plays - into escorting you to the performance, and in exchange for the experience, sign up to be on our mailing list.
Stop by the lobby of the theatre or our downtown office at 79 E. Third Street and pick up some user-friendly education materials designed to provide insights into the plays.
Attend a Festival Morning, Saturdays from 10 - 11 beginning July 5, at the Acoustic CafÃ©, corner of Lafayette and 2nd.
Buy a ticket to a Thursday evening performance and stay for the Company Conversation afterwards.
Enroll in an Elderhostel class, take one of our Teachers Workshops, or, if you're a teenager with a growing love of or curiosity about Shakespeare, sign up for one or both of our annual "Chill With Will" nights at the theatre (July 10 - Shrew; July 17 - Merchant), or enroll in our first ever "Shakespeare for Young Actors" workshop, July 10 - 20.
There are innumerable ways in which you can discover GRSF and make it your own. Just ask the 16 participants who recently completed our first-ever GRSF Elder Collegium, led by Dr. H. Patrick Costello of Saint Mary's University, or the growing-larger-each season "Friends of Will Read" collective, which has studied the plays we're doing in advance of their opening.
Join GRSF's Friends of Will volunteer organization, sign-up to usher, and watch the plays several times throughout the season. (Or encourage your employers and fellow employees to provide the complete ushering staff for a particular performance during the season.)
Further information about all of the above and more can be found at our newly redesigned website, courtesy Brett Terpstra at Circle Six in Winona: www.grsf.org.
Mostly though, we hope our productions will speak for themselves and provide their own voyage of discovery, whether it's your first or tenth time to step on board the good ship GRSF. If the crowd response at "Chocolate, Shakespeare, and Champagne" is any indication of what's in store during the next five, lightning-fast weeks that Shakespeare is back in town, it's going to be a fun, thought-provoking, and inspiring season.
See you at the theatre!