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Back at the front (porch, that is) (07/09/2008)
By Paul Barnes
This week at the Great River Shakespeare Festival is our busiest to date.

We've gotten the plays open, made it through the 4th of July weekend, been able to enjoy two terrific pre-show Prelude Concerts outdoors on the green in front of the Performing Arts Center at Winona State University amidst the gorgeous summer weather we've been awaiting, and now we're headed into what might best be called: "GRSF: The Full Monty." Our first-ever directing Shakespeare workshop for teachers, our first Chill With Will night of the season for middle and high school students, two more excellent Prelude concert performers (Winona's own Nate Gill and Simone Perrin, who grace the GRSF "star tent" on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively, beginning at 6:30), and the first of three Front Porch Speakers, actor/author, Martin Moran.

Our Front Porch Conversation series is a relatively unknown feature of the Festival, and might bear some elucidation. When Mark Hauck, Alec Wild, and I first dreamed the kind of theatre we wanted to lead together, we knew it would not be a "Renaissance Faire", "step-back-in-time-to-Merry-Olde-England" sort of affair. We wanted to be a more contemporary theatre festival, with vital productions of Shakespeare's plays at the center of all that we do, but with many other kinds of programs radiating out from that central hub. Thus, we envisioned contemporary music before shows, and a series of opportunities to engage in the conversations that inevitably result whenever and wherever Shakespeare's plays are produced and performed. We knew we'd want to hear what our audiences thought of the plays and our work; thus, our Thursday night Company Conversations following performances and our Saturday Festival Mornings, this year downtown at the Acoustic CafΓ©, through which playgoers and folk from the community can engage in dialogue about Shakespeare, the productions, the Festival, a life in the arts, and other varied topics.

More than that, though, we wanted to bring to Winona and the Festival people from outside the company and apart from the work we do whose lives and life's work might enhance, embellish, complement, or contrast with each season's plays and productions - or, in some cases, have nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare and theatre, but who might have something interesting and valuable to say.

As I've written in previous columns, I grew up in New England, where people are often divided by stonewalls, and then moved to California as a teenager, where people are separated from each other by the high fences of tract housing developments. But my work as a free-lance director has brought me to the Midwest, where there's a different and more welcoming sensibility: that of the front porch - that gathering place where families, friends, neighbors, and occasional total strangers, gather informally to share the stories of their lives. And thus, what we've come to think of as the "front porch" aesthetic of the Great River Shakespeare Festival was born.

The centerpiece of that aesthetic is our Sunday afternoon Front Porch Conversation series, which has so far featured authors, actors, poets, philosophers, arts educators, scientists, university presidents, and a well-known newspaper columnist, each of whom has brought his or her particular insight about life to Winona and to the Festival. This coming Sunday, July 12, that series continues with Martin Moran's visit, co-sponsored by the National Child Protection Training Center, which has recently moved into new state of the art facilities at Maxwell Hall on the WSU campus.

Martin is a remarkable human being, and his talk - about his memoir, The Tricky Part, which he has adapted for the stage and begun adapting for film, chronicles his journey as a victim of childhood sexual abuse - will be book-ended one week later by a second inspirational talk about transformation and healing, when William Cope Moyers visits GRSF to talk about his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and his work at Minnesota's famed Hazelden Clinic.

"Why such downers?" you may find yourself asking. "What's with this Festival anyway?? I thought plays were meant to entertain"”and now they're doing these shows with sexist and anti-Semitic content and then inviting people to talk about sex abuse and addiction. What's up with that??"

I guess the answer is that just as Shakespeare's characters struggle with matters of life, death, love, sex, violence, separation, and reconciliation, so do we all have our own very human struggles with which we must deal. By bringing two people to our Front Porch to talk openly about their personal struggles (and triumphs), we get to learn, we get to walk around in another person's shoes for a little while, we get to find out that we may not be alone in whatever personal conflicts we face, we get to discover that we're all in the same lifeboat together, trying to make it from one shore to another. And isn't that what being on the front porch with our families, friends, neighbors, and the occasional total stranger is sometimes all about"”the journey from one shore to another?

We didn't set out to make our fifth anniversary season a forum for society's ills. This just happens to be what worked out as we put together our 2008 program:

The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, good music, programs for learners of all backgrounds and ages, and three visitors to the GRSF Front Porch, each with a different story to share. We're hopeful that we'll come away from Season Five a little different, a little more thoughtful, a little more aware, a little more tolerant. Not necessarily aligned and in agreement about everything in the world, but perhaps a little more "gentled." That's as much ulterior motive as we've got, and it's not very different from our motives in Seasons One, Two, Three, and Four.

Our third conversational guest is someone more familiar to GRSF audiences: Dr. Peter Saccio, who is making his fourth visit to the Festival, this year on closing day, Sunday, July 27. Dr. Saccio's topic is "A Shrew, A Jew, and Five Years in Winona." He's become quite a GRSF fan and has chosen to be with us over spending time at other, larger and more venerated festivals. So plan to visit with Peter too. But first, Martin Moran and William Cope Moyers share their stories of transformation and healing. Tickets are $15.00 and can be purchased in advance on our website (www.grsf.org), by telephone (507-474-7900), at our downtown box office at 79 E. Third Street, or at the WSU PAC box office on the day of the Conversation.



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