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  Sunday January 25th, 2015    

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What I learned (08/03/2008)

It’s the morning of my departure from Winona; my apartment at WSU’s East Lake complex is mostly packed up, put into boxes for shipping back to Oregon or storage here in town, and I’ve passed an odd and lonely night here in the mostly-deserted, strangely quiet Building D. The company has been trickling away as they scatter to the four corners of the country, with memories of a season of accomplishment and loss taking root in our collective minds, while dreams of Season 6 find their place alongside them.

I learned a lot this season. We seem to have become an accepted and natural part of summer in Winona; the number of people who approached me in town or at the theatre and said, “next summer I’m just staying home for the month of July and doing it all: Beethoven, Shakespeare, the Museum, Gilmore Creek. . . everything!” or commented that it seemed perfectly normal to have a passel of GRSF’ers among them from May to July, was astonishing and humbling.

I learned that you can pick two challenging plays, work hard on them, and have audiences embrace the challenge. I know there were people who stayed away simply because they were uncomfortable with or disapproved of our plays’ content; I certainly respect that choice and just hope that our having paired The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice in 2008 won’t prevent those folk from attending in 2009. From Merchant itself, I learned that if you twist the knife-point of human experience in the direction of man’s inhumanity towards man, and let Shakespeare’s characters live as fully as possible with all their flaws and deficiencies, you can come up with unsettling results that feel uncomfortably close to home. As my dear friend and GRSF colleague frequently tells us, “the arts give us a safe place in which we can live dangerously for a little while.” I also re-learned a lesson that became clear for me several years ago when I directed Shakespeare’s highly ambiguous play about the Trojan War, Troilus and Cressida: plays can make us laugh, make us cry, make us angry, get us to think, exalt us, or bore us to tears, but rarely do they damage us. At their best, Shakespeare’s plays ask us to question our assumptions about many things; it’s also Shakespeare’s inherent genius to let us make up our own minds.

I also learned that our audiences enjoy seeing familiar onstage faces mixed with actors who are new to them, and that watching an adept company of actors flex their muscles in productions as different from each other as Shrew and Merchant turned out to be is delightful and gratifying - on both sides of the footlights.

Perhaps most vividly, I learned when we hosted Simone Perrin on a perfect summer night on the WSU green as our Theatre du Mississippi co-sponsored Prelude Concert guest, grilled brats for an unexpectedly large crowd (and did a lot of impromptu “punting” as a result - I doubt there was an ear of corn left at any market or grocery store within a ten-mile radius), that Winonans don’t need us to tell them what they like or what they need; rather, it is us who need to take the pulse of the community and respond accordingly, which we hope to keep doing in seasons to come. (Skeptics beware: more grilling to come!)

The other lessons this summer were affirmations of things I suspected: that there’s an appetite for these stories, but that Shakespeare is something of an acquired taste: it takes time to gain the confidence that plays by Shakespeare are, as I believe Mark Twain wrote, “for the people.” (Who should know better than this former high school student who slumped in his desk and hid behind the textbook whenever we read Shakespeare’s plays? My own taste for these stories and this glorious language has been acquired and refined over a long period of time. . .), and that if we reach out to the community through the multiplicity of conversational opportunities we try to offer during our very brief season, people will reach right back and let us know what they think.

The challenge ahead of us is great. We’re finishing the season in good shape: if we can raise the remaining $10,000 needed to fulfill our challenge grant from local supporters, we’ll have no deficit to carry forward into 2009, and early tabulations indicate a 4% increase in attendance from 2007, which is amazing when you consider the uncertain economy, escalating gas prices, the sudden and unexpected bridge closure, and a rather controversial pairing of plays. Other summer festivals are not so lucky: they’re beginning to talk about anticipated losses of $100,000 and upwards (significantly upwards).

We’re planning to mount productions of The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost, two beautiful, funny, and moving plays in 2009, and hope to give our Apprentice/Intern Company a crack at Hamlet (which will remain in the Black Box Theatre) the last week of the season. (For those people who say, “Wait! Shouldn’t Hamlet be on the mainstage with the professional company?!”, I just want to remind us that we first performed Twelfth Night with our Apprentices and Interns, and then turned around and put the play into our next mainstage season - which might provide a hint for what’s in store at GRSF in 2010).

We’ve formed an alliance with teachers across the Midwest who have attended our workshops and education programs and hope that in the fall of 2009 we can send GRSF actors into schools across the Midwest as a means of “spreading the word” and growing our audience. We’ve got money to raise (that’s what being a not-for-profit arts organization entails), staff to hire, design work to initiate, conversations of all kinds to begin, and a bit of hibernating to do as the dust settles on this challenging, thought-provoking, and rewarding fifth anniversary season.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all has been that when city leaders invited us to make Winona our home, they knew their town well enough to be confident that an appetite would be awakened, and that a Shakespeare festival would make even better an already lovely place to live. Thanks, Winona.

See you next summer, if not before!



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