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Embracing that which is difficult (07/20/2008)
From; Paul Barnes

Just as our season brochure warned, "Season Five will be over before we know it." And here we are: one week to go.

We've got final performances of The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice (many say, our strongest work to date), one more Front Porch Conversation (Peter Saccio at 1:00 PM on closing Sunday, July 27); four performances of our Intern/Apprentice Acting Company project production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Prelude Concerts on the Green, Company Conversations, Festival Mornings, Drops and Drama at the Masonic Temple, a follow-up Community Forum (Sunday, July 20, 8:00 PM) co-sponsored by Winona Unified, a performance by our inaugural Shakespeare for Young Actors workshop students (Sunday, July 20, 11:00 AM) - and that's just a preliminary scratching of the surface of all that's on hand at the Great River Shakespeare Festival from now until we close. Our fifth anniversary season evaporates into air, thin air, with our traditional "farewell to the season" ceremony immediately following the matinee performance of The Taming of the Shrew, Sunday afternoon, July 27th.

Saying "farewell" is always difficult. . . we'd like to stay; we'd like to keep going; we always feel like we've just begun to understand the plays we're working on, finding our legs, discovering the state of playfulness that evolves from the kind of relaxation that's possible only with repeated performances of the work with which we're grappling. Plus, people are still finding out that we're alive and well and onstage nightly. But it's the nature of the theatre that productions are ephemeral; they exist for a brief and finite amount of time, and are always intended to disappear into the ethos. And though it's difficult to bid a season farewell, we've all learned that embracing that which is difficult is part of what we do - not just in the theatre, but on all paths in life.

This season we bit off that which is difficult: two plays that carry with them a certain amount of "baggage," to use the current vernacular, but what we learned in embracing that particular difficulty is that the community of Winona and our audiences are completely up to the challenge and willing to take it on too. We're building on the trust we sought to establish in Season One, when we paired the familiar and popular A Midsummer Night's Dream with the risky and unknown The Winter's Tale. Our audiences have been large; we haven't experienced the dip in attendance that many other companies in the country are experiencing during these economically challenging times (though, of course, there are still plenty of seats to fill, and we'll keep working away at that - all the way to this season's final curtain). And our audiences tell us they like what they've been seeing. May not always agree with it; may have their questions about the plays and our approaches to them; but that's the name of the theatre game: what pleases one person may not satisfy the person sitting next to him or her on the same night at the same production; plays have a way of impacting us personally, according to our own life experience and where we are on our own individual journeys when we encounter a particular script. All the more so where Shakespeare is concerned.

And we also bit off a non-stop schedule of events that gives life and brings meaning to the word "festival." Concerts, conversations, special guests, grilling brats, community forums, workshops and education programs galore. . . not an easy schedule to maintain under any circumstances, let alone a brief and ephemeral five-week season.

But the community and our audience seem to say "yes", and as long as "yes" is what the community continues to say, we'll return to embrace that which is difficult.

I wrote at the beginning of the season about the man in the truck who paused at the corner of Third and Lafayette to welcome me back to Winona; those sorts of experiences have continued throughout the season - not just for me, but for almost everyone in the company. Just the other night at a performance of The Merchant of Venice a friendly young couple stopped on their way out of the Performing Arts Center to thank us for coming to Winona, and their words still ring in my mind: "We love living here. And you make it all the better."

That's what the arts do. They make a good place in which to live, visit, work, and do business an even better place to live, visit, work, and do business. And I'd like to thank the city of Winona, our numerous supporters and collaborators, and our audiences for embracing the difficult job of making Winona a place where the arts can take root and flourish.

This season more than any other, we've come into direct contact with the full cycle of life. We've welcomed our first GRSF baby to our extended family, we've celebrated the betrothal of two treasured and revered company members, and we've experienced the loss of our dear colleague, Rosemary Ingham, whose vision and voice has been and will continue to be a guiding force and energy behind the work we do. It's been difficult, to say the least. But in embracing that which is difficult, we learn, we grow, we remember what is truly important in our lives, and we're reminded that the theatre provides a healthy channel and forum through which we can examine what it means to be human.

Thank you for helping us embrace the difficult and for being so willing to get into the trenches right alongside us.

But it's not over yet. One week to go. And you can still help us meet our financial goals and insure our future in Winona by buying tickets, encouraging your friends and neighbors to attend performances, or by contributing to our recently announced $50,000 challenge grant. It's never over till it's over.

See you at the theatre!



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