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They started it! (05/11/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

The first really warm day, a hint that summer just may be on its way, arrived at the same time that the 2011 company of the Great River Shakespeare Festival gathered in Winona to begin rehearsals. New and returning members — who have become favorites of Winonans — gathered Tuesday to begin a season that will feature Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Alec Wild, Henry IV Part 1 directed by Paul Barnes, and The Fantasticks, the wonderful musical celebrating its 50th year, directed by someone new to the company, Melissa Rain Anderson. An apprentice performance of King Lear will be directed by Rick Barbour. Tickets may be purchased online at grsf.org, by phone at 507-474-7900 or in person at 79 E. Third St, downtown Winona. The season runs from June 22 through July 31.

Why do we write so much about the GRSF in the Winona Post? For several reasons, most having to do with the excellence of the Festival’s productions and how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful professional theater in the small town of Winona, Minnesota, in the region of Southeastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.

But above all, the reason GRSF finds itself extolled on these pages as often as it does is because it was the spark that fueled the arts explosion here over the last eight years.

GRSF was invited to Winona by city government, and mounted its first season in 2004. It was given a small donation by the city for a few years, which has since been discontinued. But the Festival prevails, relying on private donations and some arts grants. The Festival stage is located on the campus of Winona State University, and Saint Mary’s Valencia Arts Center is used for rehearsal space.

In 2006, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum opened its doors on Riverview Drive on the banks of the Mississippi, the dream of Mary Burrichter and Bob Kierlin, and home to their incredible collection of marine art. MMAM also houses the Leo and Marilyn Smith Folk Art Collection and the Henry Bosse river photography collection.

Hard on the heels of the MMAM, another local philanthropist established the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in 2007, with Ned Kirk as the Artistic and Managing Director. The Festival brings world renowned musicians to Winona, this year to be featuring André Watts, Leon Fleisher, Dale Warland and Thomas Hampson, as well as other artists and the ever popular Minnesota Orchestra free concert at the Lake Park Bandshell.

Just last year, the MidWest Music Fest was born, featuring a variety of musical genres at various locations around Winona.

And quietly, over the eight years since the Great River Shakespeare Festival came to Winona, art galleries have been springing up downtown, the Frozen River Film Festival has been growing and thriving, this summer bringing a series of Concerts on the Green before Great River Shakespeare Festival performances, and the Theatre du Mississippi has been expanding its production of plays and musical acts at the Masonic Building Theater.

The River Arts Alliance has begun, Fringe Fridays liven up the downtown scene, art works are displayed in downtown store windows. Steadily, Winona is embracing arts events, festivals and becoming home to artists’ studios, which dot the beauty of the river valley like jewels on a gold bracelet.

Each year, we meet more people from out of town who have come to Winona to sample this smörgåsbord of arts offerings. We’ve even met people who have moved here to retire because Winona has such a lively arts scene. (Check out the Winona Post’s year ‘round coverage of the arts, which grows and grows.)

So if you notice that for the next couple of months the Great River Shakespeare Festival appears on these pages quite often, it’s because they started it! 


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