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Challenging times (11/23/2008)
by Paul Barnes

Producing Director


I spent the weekend in Orange County, California, home of my undergraduate alma mater, California State University-Fullerton and on this mid-November weekend, the unexpected vortex of horrific, Santa Ana wind-related fires.

Descending through the night skies into Ontario on Saturday, I could see the line of flame cresting the Chino Hills. Earlier phone messages from colleagues on campus had warned me that freeway closures might make my drive from the airport to the hotel a long one. However, by 10 PM, the Brea fire just north of campus had been contained enough to enable traffic to flow smoothly from the 60 through Diamond Bar to the 57 and on into the flatland of “the OC.”

I was in Fullerton to participate in design meetings and to audition actors for a production of Noel Coward’s comedy, Hay Fever, which I’ve been invited to direct at CSUF this coming spring, and the silly theatricality of the play provided stark counterpoint to the ravages of nature all around us. On a quick dash back to the hotel to retrieve research material, I encountered an elderly couple in the elevator who told me they’d been evacuated from their home in neighboring Yorba Linda. Although they were being admirably chipper and brave considering the circumstances, it didn’t take much to sense the fear and sadness in their eyes.

It’s been an autumn of grim faces, of fearful, saddened eyes: in Washington, D.C., where I directed Henry IV, Part 1 during the height of the government bailout debate, and more recently, when I was in New York City for auditions and stayed in the financial district just as the economy began its vertiginous downward spiral. Hushed conversations and downcast eyes prevailed everywhere I turned.

And now the grim faces of people threatened by Mother Nature. I don’t subscribe to End of Days theories, but there’s no doubt that change is afoot, and man-made or nature-made, we’re now living in turbulent, challenging times.

Which naturally enough, brings me to one of my favorite topics: the Great River Shakespeare Festival. These turbulent, challenging times are quickly trickling down (well, “trickle” may be an understatement) and already impacting Season Six for which we’re well underway with plans for Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, and Hamlet (the latter to be performed by our 2009 Apprentice Actors and Interns).

Clearly, these challenging times call for frugal measures, and the GRSF Board recently approved our proposed “austerity budget,” which essentially means we’ll be producing Season Six for considerably less money than we’ve mounted any previous season, including our 2004 debut. This in turn means we’ll be drawing upon our deepest, most creative and clever resources to present a season that meets our own standards and those of our growing audiences, and that we’ll be actively enlisting the help of new and established individual, business, and corporate sponsors, galvanizing the hundreds of volunteers who have become involved with GRSF to help secure our immediate and long-term future, and drawing upon the considerable power and energy of past, present, and future company members as we grapple with fresh obstacles on our trajectory of growth.

The easy choice would be to defer the season or close the doors. We finished 2008 at a break-even point, with a few bills yet to pay but carrying forward no deficit into next season’s budget. This is a remarkable achievement for a young not-for-profit, to which we point with a mix of humility and pride as other companies are forced to close or to put operations temporarily on hold, and as much larger, more established companies anticipate deficits totaling millions of dollars or make wholesale cuts in programming.

But GRSF has never been comfortable with the easy choice. Not that deferring a season or closing an operation is easy -- a more wrenching decision is hard to imagine, but it’s one which no one on our board, within the company, or among our volunteers and audience base seems interested in having us make. Our message from Season One forward has been that we’re a company to be taken seriously, and audiences have responded in kind as they have awakened to the unlikely idea of a summer Shakespeare Festival in Winona and taken a chance on our productions of more serious work, which have brought balance and risk to the lighthearted offerings in each of our first five seasons. Encouraged by that gradual or, in some cases, sudden awakening, phrases like “staying power” and “long haul” have infiltrated our conversations and everyday working vocabulary.

We all face difficult choices in the weeks and months ahead. The path we’re on together is fraught with uncertainties; everyone’s best prognostications foresee no quick recovery or easy way out of the financial morass in which the world finds itself. The arts, always at risk in the best of times, are on the precipice. It’s a familiar if sometimes frightening perch (there’s never excess in the not-for-profit sector), so we’ll forge ahead,

doing our utmost to keep going what audiences and critics have hailed as a very good thing, heartened as we are by the support from legions of people who have said “yes” to this Festival, who believe along with us that what we do has an important place within the infrastructure of a healthy and diverse community and within the human soul, and whose faith in us inspires reciprocal faith in them.

In the midst of the number of grim faces I’ve encountered over the last couple of months of travel, I find hope and encouragement in several things: the response of playgoers who have found a place in their lives for our “little Festival that could;” the observation of a local businessman that Winona’s diverse economy provides a kind of safety net during hard times (if one sector finds itself in free-fall, others are often able to cushion and absorb that fall); the commitment of our company and the love that has grown within them for their time in Winona and for our host community; and words such as these that recently came across my email inbox: “GRSF has given my life meaning and value. I relish the opportunity to learn more about the human experience and myself. The Festival represents much more than entertainment.”

Words aren’t enough to sustain a life or to compensate for dreams that may be going up in literal or figurative smoke. But in tough times, amidst a sea of grim and fearful faces, they sure help.



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