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The Home Stretch (07/21/2010)
By Paul Barnes
As I sit down to write this, there are two weeks left of the 2010 Great River Shakespeare Festival season. We’re about to enter the home stretch. By the time you read this, we’ll be well on our way to the finish line.

This has been a season of risk and change for GRSF. We’ve focused on growing our audience and expanding access to our work. Toward that end, we’ve added a third production, The Daly News, acting company member Jonathan Gillard Daly’s musical memoir of his family during WWII, to our roster of plays this summer, and we’ve extended the season by a week, so word-of-mouth, the most powerful marketing tool at our disposal, has time to pay off. So far it looks like these strategies are doing what we hoped they’d do: provide new and returning playgoers with more opportunities to attend our productions. Attendance statistics are encouraging and we’re cautiously optimistic (operative word: cautiously) that we might actually achieve our very ambitious ticket sales goals for 2010 (would that ticket sales were the only source of income we rely on to make ends meet!).

But there’s more. Our $10 Tuesday performances (all seats $10) have proven wildly popular and brought a whole new audience to the Festival, many of whom are experiencing live professional theatre – or plays by Shakespeare – for the very first time. Thanks to a generous grant from SELCO, 16 regional libraries have been able to offer their patrons complimentary passes to GRSF performances (a program modeled after the highly successful Winona Public Library complimentary pass program that we instigated a few years ago). GRSF has been the beneficiary of Arts and Cultural Heritage funding in several ways, including the recent performance of Dan Chouinard’s and Prudence Johnson’s “Golden Age of Radio” show (the second of our 2010 Front Porch Conversation guest speakers series). Our upcoming, multi-event, Winona Legacy Weekend, for which we are partnering with the Winona County Historical Society and several area recreation and conservation groups, is serving as a model for future such collaborative programs across the state.

If we’re in the home stretch now, we somehow missed that other stretch: the one that takes place somewhere in the seventh inning (though for us, the July 4 week, when Winona becomes preternaturally quiet, often feels like something of a pause; not such a bad thing, really, considering the work that goes into getting a season of plays open in the first place). Perhaps that stretch took place on the evening when much of the company traveled up river by boat for a party at the cabin of a Board member, or the morning on which many of us were able to canoe and kayak on the magnificent Mississippi, courtesy We-No-Nah Kayaks and Canoes. Or maybe “the stretch” occurred while enjoying one of our several free concerts on the green (co-produced with our friends at Theatre du Mississippi) or at one of our convivial AfterWill parties, at which we enjoyed some Winona-style hospitality in the homes and gardens of friends and supporters of GRSF and had the opportunity to mix and mingle with local playgoers and out-of-town visitors to the Festival. There’s also been a bit of stretching at Ed’s No Name Bar on Third Street, where Ed Hoffman hosts an annual “Sonnetini Night,” and at “The Legion,” as we call Winona Post 9 of the American Legion, our unofficial “rec room,” adjacent to our home-away-from-home, the WSU East Lake apartments. We do stretch, but those breaks are often short-lived, as we work to make each new season as “rich and full” (I’m quoting Peter Flick, Friends of Will Emeritus volunteer) as we possibly can.

What’s left in the home stretch, now that the finish line is in sight?

More free concerts on upcoming Friday and Saturday evenings (6:30 PM, on the Winona State “green” – with accompanying grilling); two Front Porch Conversations (Bill Bowers, acclaimed actor and mime, who brings his solo performance piece about the silences in our lives, It Goes Without Saying, to the Recital Hall in the WSU Performing Arts Center at 1:00 PM this Sunday, July 25th, and Peter Saccio, who returns to the GRSF Front Porch Sunday, August 1, for his closing weekend talk about Othello); and Works in Progress, a special one-night only benefit performance for the Festival, featuring two accomplished American actors: James Edmondson of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Carol Mayo Jenkins, perhaps best known for her recurring role on the television series, Fame, — two friends who will come together to share stories, scenes, and soliloquys from their lives and careers in the theatre.

Closing weekend will offer a non-stop menu of Shakespeare, performed by actors of all ages and stages of growth. Our 16 Shakespeare for Young Actors students will offer a free performance of an abridged version of Shakespeare’s great history play, King Henry V, at 1:00 PM in the WSU Performing Arts Center Theatre; our 2010 Intern/Apprentice Acting Company will close its week-long run of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s early revenge play, in the Dorothy B. Magnus studio theatre, next door to the WSU mainstage theatre in the PAC; and the 2010 GRSF professional company will offer final performances of Othello, The Comedy of Errors, and The Daly News.

All of the planning, dreaming, change, and risk-taking will abruptly come to an end on Sunday, August 1, and as I’ve said before, we quickly vanish into air, thin air. If you haven’t yet seen our 2010 productions, tickets are available for some of our home-stretch performances. If you have attended performances and have liked what you’ve seen, it’s not too late to become part of that essential word-of-mouth promotional effort that could well put us over the top and help us shatter all sorts of records. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your neighbors, tell strangers on the street. It’s our biggest and, according to many, our best season yet. And, as is often the case in the home stretch, it’s not too late for some surprises to occur as the 2010 company roots itself onward to a glorious finish of growth and accomplishment.

Thanks for being with us for “lucky season seven.” 


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