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  Thursday December 18th, 2014    

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Snowbird University (01/27/2010)
By Paul Barnes
I’m writing from Boca Raton, Florida, where I’ve spent the last two days (with one more to go), meeting faculty and talking to students in the theatre department at Florida Atlantic University, watching auditions and rehearsals, and enjoying the delicious January weather in south Florida before heading your way: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to be precise, where I begin rehearsals for “Duet for One” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre on January 25. I can’t help but anticipate the winter weather I know all too well from time in the Upper Midwest (and with which I’ll soon collide), but am trying hard not to let those apprehensions diminish the enjoyment of my time here.

It’s been an adventure getting here: hit a deer at 10:30 on a Sunday night in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Nevada (actually, the wilderness, 45 miles west of Elko – my destination on the first leg of my journey east- and Midwest-ward from Oregon for an upcoming series of directing assignments). I’m fine, the car is perfectly driveable, but will be getting considerable nip-and-tuck work as soon as we get to Milwaukee.

I didn’t drive to Florida – only as far as Knoxville, Tennessee, where I spent three days auditioning and casting a production of “Man of La Mancha” I’ll direct at the Clarence Brown Theatre (home of GRSF text coach Terry Weber, former home of GRSF acting company member (’07 and ’08), Zack Fine, and home of GRSF Front Porch Speaker (’06), Carol Mayo Jenkins). Flew to Florida from Tennessee, and will retrieve my somewhat worse-for-wear vehicle in Knoxville on my way to Milwaukee. (The deer, by the way, managed to dart -- or limp – off into the darkness of the Nevada wilderness. I wish it well.)

But being here for a few days in southern Florida makes me feel like a snowbird understudy. . . certainly wouldn’t mind a little more time to relish this sense of sort of being on vacation; love getting to see the ocean and getting to dine al fresco – in January, no less – while girding my loins for colder times ahead. In between “Duet for One” at MCT and “Man of La Mancha” at CBT, I’ll direct a production of “Noises Off” at the beautifully restored Fulton Opera House – home of the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA – with GRSFer’s Christopher Gerson, Tarah Flanagan, David Graham Jones, the aforementioned Zack Fine, and 2008 season Acting Apprentice, Nick Abeel, playing key roles. It’s a short rehearsal schedule, so having people who know me and with whom I’ve got a lot of trust and shorthand will only help whip us into proper, farce-appropriate shape in time for our early March opening.

As usual, I’ve touched base with many GRSFers on this most recent sojourn. . . Apprentice/Intern Project director Rick Barbour and former Apprentice/Intern Bryan Hunt (on a one-day stop-over in Denver, where I auditioned the MFA acting students at the Denver Center Theatre Company’s National Theatre Conservatory); GRSF Associate Director Alec Wild and GRSF actor Shanara Gabrielle (in St. Louis, where two days after my stop-over I learned that the production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” I directed last fall at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis had been nominated for seven Kevin Kline Awards – St. Louis’s equivalent of Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards); Season Two and Three Lighting Designer Kenton Yeager, in Knoxville - freshly arrived home from an artist-in-residence program in Mexico City -- and now, here in lovely Boca Raton, Brad Sadler, former GRSF Acting Apprentice, also from Season Two.

What’s striking about these mini-reunions and check-ins is how quickly Winona comes up in conversation, and how rapturously GRSF company members and alums speak of the community, of their time there, and of their experiences in Winona. Whenever I talk to someone who has yet to visit or be a part of the Festival company, if I’m with anyone who has been to Winona or worked at the Festival, it’s hard to keep them from enthusiastically interrupting with tales about the bluffs, the hiking, biking, camping, and kayaking, the open-armed welcome they’ve received from townspeople, and the quality of their experience working on Shakespeare at GRSF. It’s inspiring and heartening, to say the very least. So even in the long, dark days of winter, Winona is spoken of warmly in all parts of the country – and perhaps those flames of memory, longing, and appreciation help ignite and keep burning the home-fires that glow so hopefully till summer arrives on the Mississippi.

I noted recently in a job posting for a position at Saint Mary’s University that among the more well-known attributes of life in Winona, the city’s burgeoning cultural opportunities have been cited as worthy enticement to consider applying for work here. Winona is now a mid-size community that plays host to Shakespeare, Beethoven, a winter film festival, a museum of marine and maritime art, two universities and a technical college, concerts and local theatre – along with a renowned collection of stained glass, restored Victorian architecture, a beautifully designed and expanded County Historical Museum, the Watkins Museum and more. . . to cite an increasingly lengthy and incomplete list of reasons to take a long, hard look at this city.

What strikes me as more than passingly significant about this aspect of the job posting is that it’s a direct reflection of what we heard from city leaders when we were first invited to establish the Festival in Winona, and what I heard in many informal conversations as I first spent time here: the need to be able to attract and retain employees who appreciate not just the recreational, manufacturing, and educational opportunities for which Winona is well known, but who also hunger for the kind of diverse cultural experience that can deeply enrich their lives.

I don’t know how long Saint Mary’s has been including these features of life in Winona as part of its job descriptions, but it seems clear manifestation of what city leaders hoped to do when they took the bold step of establishing a Shakespeare festival where none had been before. Well done! – and certainly on our part, very grateful to have been of help.

These are treacherous times in which we’re all faced with agonizing, nearly impossible choices about our lives, our finances, and the well-being of our communities. This temporary snowbird, pausing to reflect on a sunny Florida morning before leaping back into the wintry northern fray, is glad to be reminded of what we’ve been working for, where e’er I seem to roam -- and appreciative of the opportunities we’ve been provided and which we’ve helped open up as Winona steps into the new century.

We’re looking forward to Season Seven. Stand by for updates!

Cheers from Southern Florida – at least for one more day.



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