Opening week is like being poised at the top of a ski jump, ready to take the plunge, hoping for a safe, smooth landing – and one that outdoes our last record-setting run.
Preview performances began Wednesday evening; our 2010 productions of two plays by Shakespeare – The Comedy of Errors and Othello – opened Friday and Saturday night; GRSF’s WOW committee prepared a series of celebratory events – sponsored by Winona National Bank, Merchants Bank, and Watlow -- to get the season off to a festive start. We’ll follow the openings of this season’s Shakespeare productions with our third play of the 2010 season, The Daly News, GRSF resident actor Jonathan Gillard Daly’s musical memoir of his family’s journey during World War II, with music by Gregg Coffin and Larry Delinger, opening Sunday afternoon, July 4 with picnic, free concert, reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a return appearance of the GRSF a capella choir capping off the day, while leaving plenty of time for people to get to fireworks displays in LaCrosse, Rochester, and elsewhere.
The number of community and producing partners that make all of this possible continues to astound me. From Winona State University, which hosts our performances and keeps us housed, to Saint Mary’s University and the Valencia Arts Center, where we rehearse our plays (and where we also inhabit apartments), to the Winona County Historical Society which provides (even under inclement skies) the perfect annual “coming out” party for GRSF at its annual Chocolate, Shakespeare, and Champagne fund-raising event (and the perfect setting for the occasion: the Alexander Mansion Historic Bed and Breakfast); to Theatre du Mississippi, which co-produces our free, Friday and Saturday evening and occasional Sunday afternoon Prelude Concert series and which will soon open its annual “Drops and Drama” display at the Masonic Temple; to the Acoustic Café which plays host to our 10 AM Saturday Festival morning discussions, to Dahl Toyota, which has wrapped a brand new Prius in GRSF logos and leant it to us through the end of the season; to WKM, which has provided expansive, day-lit space for our costume shop operation; to Winona’s American Legion Post #9, which co-hosted our first annual “Chicken Q,”; to our intrepid and dedicated Friends of Will volunteer network, soon to be seen wearing their ever-fashionable black and white ushering togs at 2010 season performances, but also already active contributors to our work, what with all of the transportation, parties, and meals they have provided for the full company.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it for a long, long time: it truly does take a village. It’s an accepted fact of life in the theatre that for every one actor an audience member sees on stage there is a minimum of four other people working behind the scenes to support that actor (so, if we’re a company of 19 actors this year – which we are – that means there are 76 other people backing them up, which makes for a total company of at least 95 people who came to Winona this summer to help create “lucky season seven,” and to live and work here for the 12 weeks of the current season.
Clearly the village boundaries do not end with the GRSF company. Institutional hosts, corporate sponsors, business supporters, individual donors, and hundreds of volunteers comprise the GRSF village – along with our dedicated and growing audiences. And clearly, GRSF does not begin and end with our productions.
In addition to the three plays and the free weekend concerts on the green (bring a picnic or purchase brats, chicken, and corn-on-the-cob from our GRSF grilling team), our 2010 season Interns and Apprentice Actors will perform Shakespeare’s bloody revenge play, Titus Andronicus, in WSU’s Dorothy B. Magnus Studio Theatre during the last week of the season; our Shakespeare for Young Actors students will perform an abridged version of Shakespeare’s great history play, Henry V, on Friday afternoon, July 30 (free and open to the public); we’ll be offering an eclectic and varied line-up of Front Porch Conversation guest speakers from a showing of the remarkable Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary (co-hosted by Theatre du Mississippi and the Frozen River Film Festival) to It Goes Without Saying, actor-mime Bill Bowers’ tender, funny, and solo performance piece, to a free performance of Dan Chouinard and Prudence Johnson’s The Golden Age of Radio (sponsored by the Winona Public Library through the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Project), to a return engagement on closing weekend by Peter Saccio, Dartmouth College Professor Emeritus.
We’re also producing a special benefit performance of Works in Progress featuring James Edmondson (of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and Carol Mayo Jenkins (of the television series, Fame) who will share scenes and stories from their lives and careers on Monday, July 26, and we’re also hosting our annual Teachers Workshop, Writing and Rhetoric: Using Shakespeare to Build Better Writers, which we believe can revolutionize the teaching of writing in public schools.
All of this, plus deals, deals, deals: $10 Tuesdays (all seats $10.00); Skeptics Days (bring that friend who thinks Shakespeare isn’t for them and get a half-price ticket), Student Rush, our newly expanded Library Ticket Pass Program (sponsored by a generous grant from the SELCO library system), and more. We’re doing our best to make the Great River Shakespeare Festival as accessible to all Minnesotans as we can, while also managing to stay in business.
In the midst of putting all of the puzzle pieces in place that comprise GRSF/2010, I am struck all over again by the singularity and uniqueness of Winona. I’ve found time to attend the wonderful Home and Community Options production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella; I had a delicious pancake breakfast in the Merchants Bank parking lot while being serenaded by the Winhawk marching band; I’ve Chicken Q’d and chocolate’d and champagne’d, and on Monday night, I sat mesmerized beyond words during our 3rd annual GRSF Community Forum, at which World War II veterans and Winona residents Bud English, Francis Losinski, Darol “Lefty” Lee, and Charlie Kubicek – survivors of Midway Island, Omaha Beach, and Iwo Jima -- sat on stage with GRSF actor Jonathan Gillard Daly and recounted stories from their service in Europe and the Pacific. The richness, quiet pride, and humility of this city and the people who call Winona home never fails to impress.
Right now signs at the Festival are impressive in a different way. Advance ticket sales are up from 2009; opening night is just about sold out. But we’re going to need your help in order to meet our very ambitious goals for Season Seven. Come to the plays as early as possible, and then return again with friends, family, neighbors – or with complete strangers who you think will enjoy what GRSF has to offer. Clearly, this is a season with something for everyone. But our success depends on the generosity of your spirit, and your concerted efforts to keep Shakespeare alive and thriving in Winona.
Of course financial generosity is key to our sustained success and presence. But the generosity of your annual welcome, and the generous way in which you give of your own time or spread the word about this “little engine that could” theatre festival that seems to have sparked an arts renaissance in its host city counts as importantly as does the largesse of your giving. Talk it up!
Spread the word! Create converts! We’re running one week longer this year. But in spite of that extension of performances (and the addition of a third production to our playbill), August 1st, when we vanish into thin air once more, will be here before we all know it.