Mark Hauck, Alec Wild, and I first talked about establishing a theatre company in Minnesota over dinner during a storm that dropped six inches of snow on Minneapolis. The date — April 30, 2002 — sticks, because as a Southern Oregonian who sees snow only occasionally (and mostly on the mountains that ring my hometown of Ashland, home to America’s oldest and largest Shakespeare Festival), the late Spring storm was startling, and to me, a cushy Northwesterner, slightly unnatural. Little did we know that word of our dream would spread so rapidly and that an enterprising businessman and visionary leader by the name of Will Kitchen would initiate what we came to think of as a “full court press” to bring Shakespeare to Winona. Within a few short months we had met with a panoply of civic “movers and shakers” and in October, 2002, accepted the city’s invitation to make Winona home for the Great River Shakespeare Festival. The rest, as they say, is history — or perhaps, history still in the making.
Nine years later we’re embarking on our 8th season. Since debuting in 2004, we’ve mounted 14 widely acclaimed professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays, attracted thousands of visitors to Winona, introduced musicals to our production line-up, collaborated with local organizations and businesses on an astonishing array of education and community outreach programs, helped inspire something of an “arts explosion” in Winona, been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Minnesota State Senate and a platoon of local and regional foundations, granting organizations, and publications, galvanized hundreds of volunteers, and introduced the work of William Shakespeare to a steadily expanding audience base from all over the country.
The decade since that April snowstorm has not been untroubled or without its challenges. Few, if any, saw the current economic downturn coming, but the fact that GRSF continues to be a vibrant addition to the cultural, educational, and economic life of the community and the region is a testament to the hundreds of people who have believed in this unlikely dream and have worked tirelessly and selflessly to bring it to life. Enough people have said “yes” to the Great River Shakespeare Festival that we are looking to the next decades of work and growth with confidence.
To ensure that future, we are embarking on our first major fundraising campaign, which we’re calling “Setting the Stage: A Campaign for Organizational Growth and Longevity.” Our $1.6 million goal will provide GRSF with resources to break our annual expense-income “starvation cycle,” provide a reserve “Stewardship Fund,” and give us a significant head start on funding for the next several seasons. The dreams the campaign will fund include expanding the number of productions we bring to Winona, extending the length of the season, growing our education and outreach programs along with the staff to administrate those programs, and becoming more of a year-round presence in Winona and the region.
We look to the future with energy and inspiration because so many people have told us that we are not just on the right track, but that we have had a positive impact on their lives, on the city, and on the region. All of us at GRSF look forward to sharing details in the coming weeks and months and hope you will join us in Setting the Stage for the Festival’s promise-filled future.