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WOW: More Than a Wow! (07/01/2009)
By Paul Barnes
When we learned that Winona National Bank would be unable to host our traditional opening night party this season, many of us at the Great River Shakespeare Festival despaired. The party, to which WNB had so generously dedicated abundant funding and staff time since our inaugural season had become an event that GRSF company members and opening night playgoers looked forward to with relish and delight, but which also seemed, given current economic realities, an extravagant way to reflect its support, which remains steadfast. Immediately we set about to answer the question: how could we celebrate the opening of our season and continue to attract our typical, nearly sold-out house without the added benefit of sidling up to the tellers’ windows to order a drink??

Fortunately, a group of GRSF volunteers and supporters stepped up to the plate on very short notice and formed the WOW (Will’s Opening Weekend) Committee and outdid themselves in the bargain, making sure that our entire weekend was a success. The committee devised a three-pronged plan: reception (sponsored by Merchant’s Bank) following Friday’s opening performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost in the Winona State University Atrium, a pre-Preview performance reception for company members, playgoers, and out-of-town visitors hosted by the Minnesota Marine Art Museum on Saturday afternoon, and a Minnesota-style family picnic (sponsored by Winona National Bank) following Sunday afternoon’s opening of The Tempest. The plan turned out to be a grand slam, for the Festival, the Museum, Theatre du Mississippi, for in-town and out-of-town playgoers, and we hope, for the community – and judging from preliminary impressions, may have managed to not just “up” our numbers at the box office but “wow” an impressive number of first-time and returning visitors to Winona.

Our thanks go to our inventive, tireless, and enthusiastic committee members: Jack and Sue Cornwell, Bob and Jane Bartz, Tedd and Tracy Morgan, Dave and Joan Bernard, Brian and Sandra Burke, Raymond and Laura Feller; to Betsy Midthun and all of the staff members and volunteers at MMAM with whom we were able to strengthen our already existing partnerships; to members of the Friends of Will volunteer organization who, as usual, filled in many of the gaps when the committee got stretched a little thin; our co-partners at Theatre du Mississippi, who brought the Cape Breton Quartet, Dan Chouinard and Prudence Johnson to the GRSF Prelude Concert Stage (and also opened their newly-revised “Drops and Drama” presentation at the Masonic Temple as part of the Opening Weekend festivities), to the staff and administration of Winona State University who assisted behind the scenes, and to the numerous people I’m probably overlooking and omitting from these heartfelt acknowledgements. (Another unsung hero of our opening weekend success: Saint Mary’s University, whose generosity enabled us to rehearse our 2009 season productions in rooms and studios at the Valencia Center for the Arts. Our work on the two very challenging plays we’re offering in 2009 would not be as strong as people seem to think it is without benefit of those spaces – and the friendly, cooperative staff at Valencia who welcomed us so warmly to their world.)

I’d also like to thank whoever it was that had such a direct connection to the gods of weather and climate. We could not have asked for a more gorgeous opening weekend, and judging from numerous conversations I and other company members had with visitors from the Cities, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Chicago, Milwaukee, Decorah, and all points in-between and beyond, they were knocked out by the unique and unbeatable combination of physical beauty, perfect weather, the majestic Mississippi, this charming riverfront town with its myriad recreational opportunities and its exploding abundance of world-class theatre, art, and music.

We’re off and running – but it’s a sprint, not a marathon. Season Six will come to a close on Sunday, July 26. Between now and then there are performances of our newly-acclaimed productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest, our Intern/Apprentice Company project, Hamlet; showings of recent winners from the Frozen River Film Festival (Sunday, July 12), a one-time only special benefit performance of veteran GRSF actor Jonathan Gillard Daly’s play with music, The Daly News (Monday, July 13); our Shakespeare for Young Actors workshop performance (Sunday, July 19; enrollment still open: contact Nick Minas, GRSF Education Coordinator at nickm@grsf.org); Peter Saccio’s Front Porch Conversation (closing Sunday, July 26), and the usual round of Company Conversations, Festival Mornings (Saturdays, 10 AM at the Acoustic Café), teachers workshops, Elderhostel programs, Prelude Concerts, Grilling with Will, Chill With Will, Skeptics Day, and more. Visit grsf.org for details.

As always, we are indebted to and grateful for a community that has said “yes” to the idea of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and that seems willing to find ways to continue to affirm our presence here, even in the toughest of times.



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