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At ease at last (09/23/2009)
By Paul Barnes
The production of Amadeus I just opened at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis happened to receive, much to my surprise, a glowing notice in the Friday, September 18, edition of The Wall Street Journal. It praised the production, direction, acting, and design of Peter Shaffer’s play, but more important, I think, Terry Teachout, the Journal’s resident theatre critic (and therefore, part of a fast- dying breed in America), went on to say, “This is just the kind of show I have in mind when I assure disbelieving Manhattanites that it’s not merely possible but easy to see high-quality theater in every corner of America, flyover country very much included.”

Alec Wild, my colleague and founding partner at GRSF, is fond of saying that the Great River Shakespeare Festival could only happen in the Midwest. He’s referring to what we hope is a lack of pretention in our work and in our productions; a kind of honesty and trust of the script that keeps us on the story- telling straight and narrow path, and that ultimately helps people who may have little exposure to live productions of Shakespeare’s plays learn what someone once said (Mark Twain I keep hoping): “Shakespeare wrote for the people. We’re the people. Let’s listen.”

Last summer we took steps toward becoming what we proudly call “the beer and brats Shakespeare festival.” Our Saturday “Grill With Will” evenings grew in popularity (thanks, Carew Halleck and crew), as did attendance at our Friday and Saturday evening pre-show Prelude concerts (thanks, Theatre du Mississippi and gang), as we presented an eclectic array of mostly local and regional musicians on the green at Winona State University (thanks, WSU). Our Teachers Workshops (thanks, SMU) continued to attract educators who want to enhance their classrooms and acquire techniques for bringing Shakespeare alive for students, and our numerous community outreach and other education programs also drew large numbers of people wanting to enrich and embellish their playgoing experience, including Winona’s own Great River Collegium (thanks, Peter Flick; thanks, Dr. Pat Costello).

But more than that, I think 2009 was the season in which GRSF became an expectation rather than an aberration. Friends who came to town to see the plays and experience Winona and the region (many for the first time), told me on more than one occasion that when they mentioned to local shop owners and merchants that they were in town for Shakespeare, the response was uniformly, “Oh, it’s really good.” If they pursued the conversation a step or two further and inquired if these same shop owners and merchants had seen the plays yet, the answer as often as not was, “Oh, no. But it’s really good.”

To me that’s a sign of health. When people who may not be inclined to see a GRSF production but nonetheless affirm our presence and our work, that spells progress from our first days in Winona when the question we most often encountered was “What makes you think Shakespeare can work in Winona?” We’ll keep chipping away at those proud resisters bit by bit, but the fact that nonbelievers can endorse the Festival wholeheartedly warms the hearts of all of us at GRSF - and the hearts of all those people who have believed in us from the get-go and who have worked so hard to make this dream come true.

It’s been a very fast seven weeks since we closed. I’ve traveled back to Oregon, turned around almost immediately to get myself to St. Louis for rehearsals of Amadeus, flown to California and back for the wedding of Christopher Gerson and Tarah Flanagan (it’s been a marrying season in the world of GRSF: Technical Director Erik Paulson and Lighting Designer Lonnie Alcaraz exchanged vows with their long-time sweethearts on the same day in late August in two different cities: Minneapolis and San Juan Capistrano, respectively), and, following the opening of Amadeus, returned home to Oregon where I’ve come to rest for a bit.

It’s gorgeous here at this time of the year, as is so much of the country, including the Upper Midwest. And Ashland is alive and thriving. Playgoers are flocking to the eight productions that my hometown theatre company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, continues to offer up until the closing of the 2009 season at the end of October; shops are doing brisk business, and restaurants are full to overflowing. We look forward to the off-season when we’ll be able to be seated at our favorite haunts any time we like; till then, we’re happy that in this recession era economy, people are finding ways to continue to support the arts - especially in small cities like Ashland, and in places commonly thought of as “flyover country.”

Along the dusty trail home, I’ve seen GRSF’ers everywhere. Chris and Tarah, of course (and a passel of wedding attendees representing GRSF, including Carla Noack, currently on the theatre faculty at the University of Missouri/Kansas City); Kim Martin-Cotten, early into the national tour of August: Osage County in which she’s understudying the actresses playing the three daughters; Rex Young (GRSF ‘04) in Macbeth here at OSF; Michael Brusasco (‘04), in Private Lives at the Utah Shakespearean Festival; Kern McFadden (‘04, ‘05, ‘07) in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego; Leslie Brott (text coach, ‘08) in Much Ado About Nothing at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival; Jef Awada (Movement Coach, ‘08, ‘09) who teaches Movement at Webster University, and ‘09 Apprentice actors Jess Shoemaker, Stephanie Lambourne, and Brian White. No matter where you roam in this country, it’s impossible not to stumble upon people who have worked here and/or know all about Winona and what is to many the success story of the Great River Shakespeare Festival.

My next cross-country foray takes me to Salt Lake City and New York for casting of my next assignment, the stage adaptation of A Christmas Story (Ralphy and Randy, the leg lamp, and the bumptious dogs next door), and then brings me back to Winona for a series of events in early October, including our first-ever off-season Saturday Festival Morning at the Acoustic Café on October 10 in which I, and a few “celebrity” guests, will talk about the ‘10 season. Along the way I hope to see Brian Frederick (GRSF ‘04, ‘06 - ‘09) who’s acting with the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, and Heidi Armbruster (‘04, ‘05) who is in the Guthrie Theatre’s current production of The Importance of Being Ernest.

But for the moment I’m at ease at last, enjoying autumn and gearing up for what promises to be an exciting seventh season in Winona, my home away from home.



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