by Paul Barnes
My post-Winona/GRSF fifth anniversary season travels have landed me in our nation’s capital, where I am about to begin rehearsals for Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 at the Folger Theatre, which is part of the famed Folger Library. From the front window of my apartment here I can watch much of the United States government as it walks to work in the morning; the U.S. Supreme Corner is kitty-corner from where I’m staying, and the three-building Library of Congress complex is just down the street. The Capitol itself is, you should pardon the expression, spitting distance away. As someone who takes an avid interest in politics (and who is about to direct a play rife with politics – and political father-son relationships), it’s thrilling to get to direct here – period; but to be in Washington, D.C. during this fascinating, high-stakes election time is icing on the proverbial cake. And, as an inveterate eavesdropper on lunch and dinnertime conversations, I can already tell you that the level of discourse in restaurants fairly shimmers here; it’s as heady and intense as one might expect.
Just as has much of our company, I’ve traveled a lot, actually, since leaving Winona in early August. I’ve auditioned actors, attended plays, and/or participated in production meetings for upcoming projects at theatres and festivals in Cedar City and Salt Lake City, Utah; Las Vegas, Nevada; St. Louis, Missouri, and also had the opportunity to immerse myself in a lot of play-going in my home town of Ashland, Oregon (host of the 75-year-old Oregon Shakespeare Festival). I can’t say that I’ve seen anything along the way that’s been head and shoulders above the work we produced last summer at GRSF; but obviously, I come from an acutely biased point of view.
But everywhere I’ve gone people always ask, “How did things go in Winona this summer?” Word of the Festival has spread to the four corners of the country, and people’s interest in the GRSF “story” is keen. They’re always pretty dazzled when I talk to them about community support and involvement, and when they hear that we finished about 4% ahead in 2008 of where we were in attendance in 2007 (despite gas prices, the economy, and the sudden, unexpected closure of the Winona bridge to Wisconsin), they’re impressed. But when I talk about the interest in the plays and the conversations that lingered around town after the season closed in which people clearly wanted to keep discussing the content and context of last season’s pairing of The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, that’s when people become a little envious, even awe-struck.
“You mean there’s a community out there that is affected deeply by – and actually cares and feels strongly enough about the plays to debate their merit in the local papers – even after the season has ended?!” “Yep; sure is.” And suddenly I’m reminded of one of my favorite American musicals, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, which is to me not just a story about a flim-flam salesman who falls in love with the town librarian, but the story of a town that is awakened to its own appetite for music, dance, and poetry and transformed by its new or rediscovered love of the arts, and then, what may seem strange to friends and colleagues who inquire about GRSF doesn’t seem all that unique or foreign, rather, familiar, logical, and fortunate.
So what’s new and what’s next? Many of you know that we’ve announced Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest as our main stage season productions for ’09, and that we’re inviting our acting apprentices and Interns to sink their teeth into Hamlet – so it’s another challenging, varied season, mixing comedy, romance, and tragedy – and as soon as we’ve got budget approval from our board, we’ll make it official. We have been so encouraged by people’s response to Merchant and Shrew – and the willingness of so many to “step up to the plate” and take a risk on something difficult and challenging, that it now seems to us that anything is possible at GRSF. The kind of partnership we envisioned taking root in Winona seems to be happening: our audience’s growing trust in us along with an ever-increasing sense that Shakespeare may be for them, after all.
Our promise to you is to keep doing our work in a way that will encourage that growth of appetite and confidence, and that will inspire you to keep coming back to engage in and be inspired by more of these great stories. We know we won’t please everyone all of the time; I don’t think we’d be doing our jobs if we did. The arts often have a bit of a bite as they ask us to look at ourselves and the world in which we live; they’re subjective endeavors, never executed or performed in isolation, and dependent – especially in the theatre – on the response of a living, breathing, multifaceted, and opinionated audience.
We’ve got hard work ahead – a season to plan, plus a lot of fundraising to do in order to bring GRSF ‘09 into being. But the work has begun.
So for now, over and out from our nation’s capital.
Great River Shakespeare Festival
PS If you’re a fan of The New Yorker, you’ll find GRSF actor Aya Cash’s photograph on page 12 of the September 9 edition. Aya’s about to open in a new play at Playwright’s Horizons in New York City which also features television, stage, and film actors, Dylan McDermott and Maura Tierney. More updates on GRSFers’ whereabouts to come!