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  Thursday January 29th, 2015    

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Season opening nerves (06/21/2009)
By Paul Barnes


It’s all going to happen.

Season Six. Five weeks, two plays, 17 actors, 1 Intern/Apprentice company project…concerts, classes, conversations and more.

We’re 19% ahead in ticket sales from where we were a year ago at this time, and our small donor base has increased some 200%. I know of no theatre in the country that’s posting these sort of statistics, and it makes me proud and nervous all at the same time. It’s enough to make the stomach churn.

We’ve gone online with reservations and advance purchasing this season (www.grsf.org), which — according to colleagues at theatres across the country — often produces the kind of “surge” we’re experiencing right now. Plus, this is the time that people realize we’re about to open and it’s time to order tickets. These trends, coupled with the increase in last-minute decision-making about how we spend our limited entertainment dollars, makes me cautiously optimistic about Season Six, in which we’re pairing two plays by Shakespeare that are considered comedies, but which are not what anyone would necessarily consider “sure fire hits” in the way A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a safe programming bet.

As I’ve written before, we’re a company that from the get-go wanted to take risks. In many ways, we took our cue from city leaders who first invited us to make Winona — a town in which Shakespeare skeptics abounded (and still do) — our home base. When we scheduled Dream in our inaugural season, we paired it with the lesser known The Winter’s Tale instead of something with greater title recognition. The risks of our fifth anniversary season plays have been hashed over extensively; this season, when it became clear that the economy was heading farther south than most “snowbirds” do at the onset of winter, we took the calculated risk of sticking with our 2009 choices, The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost — plays that we’re passionate about and that we think will move and delight our audiences.

What I’ve seen in rehearsal so far is extraordinary. A repertory company of 17 actors, stretching in very different directions, working on two of the most challenging scripts we’ve tackled yet. Elegant design work from a team of craftsmen and women willing to make us look as good as we always do on reduced budgets with reduced staff. Music by two exceptional composers, created specifically for these two productions.

But there is plenty of sobering perspective everywhere we look. Each week brings news of a major theatre or opera company elsewhere in the country closing or being threatened with extinction (clearly, there may be a lot to be said for being off the beaten path and for being a grass-roots operation), and whereas our current ticket sales are certainly encouraging, it’s important to remember we’ve still got seats to fill and, moreover, as big as our hearts and our dreams are, we’re comparatively small. In our entire five weeks of performances, we play to as many people as attend productions at American Players Theatre, our neighbors across the River in Spring Green, in less than one week of their three-and-a-half month long season. We’re growing, but we’re still very much in our infancy, squalling a bit and taking our tentative first steps.

What I hope is that people will come to the plays early so if they like what they see they can return again and/or encourage their friends, their neighbors, their families, or people they may know who have yet to experience GRSF to take a risk on the company that’s believed in risk-taking from the very start.

I keep saying this, probably because it’s true and true things bear repeating: it’s a short season. We’re gone in the blink of an eye till the next season, when we’ll rise again like the proverbial phoenix. In between June 25 when Love’s Labour’s Lost previews and July 26 when the season closes, there are riches galore: our 2009 Intern/Apprentice Acting Company project, Hamlet; workshops for teachers; our second annual Shakespeare for Young Actors Program; our Chill With Will nights for middle and high school students; Company Conversations; Festival Mornings at the Acoustic Cafe; Front Porch Speakers (Peter Saccio returns on closing weekend!); Prelude Concerts before Friday and Saturday evening performances (co sponsored with our friends at Theatre du Mississippi); and a special, one-time only benefit performance of six-year GRSF veteran actor and founding company member Jonathan Gillard Daly’s play with music, The Daly News (Monday, July 13).

If we’d like that blinking eye to remain open a little longer (and we would), early attendance, good word of mouth, and maybe a bit of strong-arming to get those skeptics out of their chairs and into the theatre will make that happen. Right now we’re on the upside of encouraging trends. How long that will last remains to be seen. And because we’re risking the unknown during very turbulent times, I suspect that churning stomach will stay with me all the way up to our final performance and company farewell on Sunday, July 26.

PS: Be sure to visit our website (grsf.org) and check out the events of our three-day Opening Weekend celebration, June 26 – 28. Also, this Monday, June 22nd, we’re hosting our second annual Community Forum at which we’ll talk about the Festival, the 2009 season productions, and hear from attendees what they’d like to see us doing in 2010 and beyond. 6:00 – 7:30 PM, WSU Performing Arts Center Theatre. Free and open to the public. 


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