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What happens in Winona does not stay in Winona (11/06/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

The Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF), just off its eighth year in Winona, will hold its first ever “Stakeholders Meeting” on Monday, November 7. It will be held at the new Winona County History Center at 160 Johnson Street, beginning at 4:30 p.m.

So, you might ask yourself, who is a “stakeholder?” The answer is that you are. If you are a big fan, and go to every play twice, you’re a stockholder. If you’ve never been to a GRSF play, but love the concerts on the green, or if you’ve never stepped foot on the WSU campus during the summer season of GRSF, you too are a stakeholder.

Why? GRSF, like the Minnesota Beethoven Festival — or the Frozen River Film Festival, Theare du Mississippi, Winona’s museums, the arts events sponsored by the schools, and less formal groups of artists — all work to change and enhance the climate of the Winona area.

GRSF brings over 100 people to Winona who stay from May through August — actors and other staff who are needed to mount the shows. Those people live in Winona State University’s East Lake Apartments, and shop locally for gas, groceries, and the incidentals it takes to live away from home for so long. They can sometimes be spotted at the Veteran’s Center after shows or rehearsals winding down and hobnobbing with the vets there. They eat in our restaurants, go to our movie theater, and run on the bike path. They host friends and family who come to Winona to see the shows.

But that’s just a drop in the bucket. This past summer, GRSF sold nearly 10,000 tickets to the shows, 50% of those to out-of-towners. A total of fifteen thousand people came to all the GRSF events. Many of those people from out of town will stay the night, rather than drive home late at night. To capitalize on that, the Festival is working on a weekend package that will allow people to see more than one show and experience a little of what Winona has to offer in just two days, with time to get home and get a good night’s sleep before work on Monday.

The more GRSF can build on an out-of-town audience, the better for all of us in Winona. Restaurants that need more patrons than the Winona area alone can offer will thrive. Motels benefit. The retail sector grows. New blood and new money in town is good for all of us in the region.

But there is more than an economic impact to consider. Last summer, the concerts on the green brought in great bands from all over, and hundreds of people brought lawn chairs to the green in front of WSU’s Performing Arts Center to enjoy the weekend concerts. Educational speakers and events were mounted. Local kids were a able to enroll in “Shakespeare for Young Actors,” learning about the theater, the Bard, and putting on their own show. During the off-season, GRSF actors came back to town to put on educational symposia at the high school.

For those among us who value good theater, GRSF has been a boon. No longer do we starve for theater except if we travel out of town. We get to see widely acclaimed theater in our own back yard, at a fraction of the cost for metro theaters.

GRSF is quickly gaining a name for itself in theater circles. This year, the Festival was awarded a “TOSCAR,” by the Twin Cities arts quarterly TOSCA, which made the metro theater community sit up and take notice. The quality of the productions here is without question among the best in the nation. So the secret is out, and what is happening in Winona is not staying in Winona, but radiating out into the wider region and even nationally.

The Festival can only grow, but like all arts ventures, is driven by fundraising. The revenue from tickets only covers 30% of the $850,000 cost to mount a season of GRSF. Come to the Stakeholders Meeting to see how the board of directors, Advancement and Community Development Director Brian Frederick, and new Managing Director Eric Bunge have planned to address the budgetary needs of the Festival. See what the Festival is doing for all of us! 


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