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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Angels, balancing acts, free stuff (05/09/2010)
By Paul Barnes

‘Tis the night before packing and all through the house. . .

I begin my drive to Winona tomorrow, and by the time you read this, I’ll be somewhere between Oregon and Minnesota, or, pending available space on this page, in Winona itself.

Already – even as I survey the debris surrounding me as I regroup for another three months away -- the 2010 season company is trickling into town. Stage managers have begun prepping rehearsal spaces; much of our costume staff has dug into making the second floor warehouse at WKM Properties into our old-new costume shop (ask any costume designer or shop supervisor what it’s like to have space, windows, and daylight views, and you’ll quickly learn how often shops are relegated to below-ground, air- and light-less spaces); Chris Minnick, our company manager is finessing early housing arrangements and working with our Friends of Will transportation committee to make sure everyone is met, greeted, and/or picked up at airports, train stations, and bus terminals; Bryan Hunt, our education coordinator is playing a very fast game of “catch up” as he assumes “quarterback” duties for our myriad summer education and community outreach programs. Our small but stalwart year-round staff suddenly has company in the downtown office; and I’m pleased to tell you that so far at least, the box office phone has been keeping that staff very busy since tickets went on sale in late March.

I’ve been home for about 10 days after completing my back-to-back-to-back directing “trifecta” of plays about people faced with insurmountable obstacles, and though departing the home front so soon after just having arrived is always hard, I’m eager to get to Winona and begin the on-site, hit-the-ground-running work on what is shaping up to be our most ambitious season ever.

As I consider the fact that we have actually made it to Season Seven, I can’t help but be struck by our own seemingly insurmountable obstacles (“What makes you think Shakespeare will work in Winona??”) and the number of “angels” who have helped guide the Great River Shakespeare Festival since its inception. We are truly a grass-roots operation, and are the fortunate beneficiary of the generosity of a multiplicity of people – many with us from the beginning, others more recent converts. Whether it’s our stalwart corporate sponsors, members of the Great River League business alliance, producing partners such as Theatre du Mississippi, civic organizations like Winona Park and Recreation, the Winona County Historical Society, the Winona Public Library, the hundreds of Friends of Will volunteers, or our host institutions – Saint Mary’s University and Winona State University, who make it possible for us to have space in which we can rehearse and perform our productions and live comfortably for the three months we’re in residence, there are many people who have stepped forward to offer their support, again and again and again. It’s humbling. And encouraging. Because obstacles have a way of cropping up like pesky brush fires.

There is always more help to be sought, and more to be found.

Fundraising never ends in the not-for-profit sector, nor does the need for contributions of many other kinds. This season, for example, we have a growing cadre of families who have offered temporary housing for company members till we’re able to move to our more permanent accommodations; our poster and brochure distribution volunteers are awaiting the arrival of our season marketing material so they can go to work; many people have helped us equip and move to our new costume shop location. It does take a village, and it seems with each passing season, we’re occupying an increasingly spread-out part of “village Winona.”

Balancing acts

Our work in the foundation and granting world continues as we seek support from a broader range of funders. Interestingly, news of our recent grant renewal from the National Endowment of the Arts provoked conflicting reactions. Almost immediately the Great River Shakespeare Festival made Oklahoma Senator Coburn’s “pork of the week” list (odd, for a comparatively miniscule amount, given the NEA’s annual budget; but more so for a contribution that helps 90 people come to Winona to live for 3 months, where they work, shop, and pay taxes – as well as for an organization that brings thousands of visitors to Winona where they see our plays, lodge overnight, shop, and eat at local restaurants), but there you have it. Easy to pick on the little guy.

I also heard that when we announced renewed support from the NEA that some people thought, “Well, they’re doing fine, they don’t need my help.”

Simply not the case. The NEA grant was, indeed, an increase from last year’s support, but was also not the full amount for which we applied and budgeted. The $10,000 we didn’t receive needs to be made up elsewhere.

And whereas I wanted people to know of our success with the NEA because I think it’s important for Winonans to know that their faith and their work have not been for naught – that, in fact, the premiere funding agency for the arts in this country has taken note of our “little engine that could” Shakespeare festival in an unprecedented, unheard of amount of time – to not let people know we’re having success on the granting front might give people the impression that we’re on unsteady footing, with our very existence threatened.

Of course our very existence is threatened. What seven-year-old not-for-profit arts organization’s existence is not threatened, especially in the current economic climate? It simply takes time to build a broad base of support and the kind of recognition and audience that will sustain a theatre company. But the commitment of our board, our host institutions, our legion of angels and army of volunteers gives us faith and courage to keep working to make sure we don’t go away any time soon. It’s a balancing act we try to maintain in that sort of “damned if we do tell them, damned if we don’t.” One person’s piece of over-ripe pork is another person’s vanishing act.

Free stuff

The other thing that has been on my mind as I’ve begun packing my bags is what people don’t seem to know about the Great River Shakespeare Festival. For instance, did you know what we do for free?? Our complimentary library pass program, for one, already established at the Winona Public Library and which we hope to expand to as many as 14 new libraries this summer, has enabled hundreds of playgoers of limited means the opportunity to attend our productions – for free.

Did you know we co-produce (with Theatre du Mississippi) free concerts on the WSU green every Friday and Saturday evening before performances – and this season on two Sunday afternoons (June 27 and July 4), following our matinees?

Did you know that Winona State University has a green? It’s been brought to my attention that a lot of people in Winona don’t visit the campus and don’t realize that the street that used to bisect WSU has been closed off for years now, and that the campus itself has been gorgeously relandscaped. Although we’d really like you to come see our plays, if you’re timid about Shakespeare, try one of our free weekend concerts. You can hear folk music, bluegrass, jazz, classical, Cajun, Canadian fiddling, pop, and just about anything – starting at 6:30 PM, performed by an eclectic array of local and regional musicians – for free! And though it’s not free, if you’re timid about Shakespeare, try our first non-Shakespearean production – a WWII musical written and performed by one of our most popular and admired resident acting company members, Jonathan Gillard Daly, The Daly News.

Our Shakespeare for Young Actors students will perform an abridged version of King Henry the Fifth on Friday, July 30, at 1 PM in the WSU Performing Arts Center Theatre – for free! You can attend a Festival Morning at the Acoustic Café Saturdays in July from 10 – 11 AM – for free!

And, if the price of a ticket to one of our performances ($20 - $37, depending on the day of the week and how close you want to sit) is prohibitive, try a discounted preview performance, a $10 Tuesday (all seats $10, first come, first served), student rush tickets…or talk a friend who enjoys our productions to bring you as their skeptical guest to our “Skeptics Night” performances of Othello (July 9) or The Comedy of Errors (July 10). (Skeptics get in for $5.00).

We are doing our darnedest to make seeing a play as affordable as seeing a movie, and to make sure that our work is accessible to Minnesotans of all ages, backgrounds, and economic means.

All of these things – and so much more – starts to unfold on June 21 with our annual (free!) Community Forum. Two days later, the plays begin their public performances, with previews of Comedy and Othello followed by our second annual, three-day long gala opening celebration (“Will’s Opening Weekend”) commencing on Friday, June 25.

Although we’ve added a third show and intend to run one week longer this year, our 2010 season will still go by in the blink of an eye. I can guarantee you won’t want to miss a moment of it. At least that’s my goal and my hope as I pack my bags and hit the now-familiar trail to my home-away-from-home: unlikely yet always inspiring, ever-welcoming Winona, Minnesota.



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