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Paul Barnes steps down at GRSF (10/28/2012)
By Emily Buss

Photo by Kathy Christenson
     Doug Scholz-Carlson is the newly named Artistic Producing Director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Paul Barnes is stepping down from his position as Producing and Artistic Director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, which he has held since the founding of the festival. He will continue to direct shows for the festival.

It’s often the man behind the scenes who makes the most impact. He is the one silently directing from backstage. He is the one meticulously scrutinizing each movement and voice inflection. He is the one demanding perfection from each actor, no matter how small or large the role. He is responsible for making the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) everything that it is today, and after 11 years at the helm of one of the country’s most admired Shakespeare festivals, GRSF Artistic and Producing Director Paul Barnes is retiring. Associate Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson has been named as his replacement.

From a precocious childhood through adulthood, Barnes has been immersed in the works of William Shakespeare for much of his life. He now lives in Ashland, Ore., the home of the country’s oldest and largest Shakespeare festivals. Early on, Barnes made it his life’s mission to involve himself in the work of Shakespeare.

It was a typical Minnesota winter in 2002 when Barnes was sitting out a snowstorm in Minneapolis with friend and theater professional Mark Hauck. Barnes was working on Shakespeare projects at the Guthrie Theater as part of the University of Minnesota’s BFA Actor Training and called Hauck, a native Minnesotan, to see if he wanted to volunteer. Simultaneously, Alec Wild had been hired to direct a different project with the students.

“The three of us became acquainted during the several weeks we were in Minneapolis and we shared a love of Shakespeare’s language and working on his plays from a text-based perspective,” Barnes quipped.

It was over dinner one evening that, like lightening, an idea sparked.

“It was Mark’s idea to establish a summer Shakespeare festival somewhere in the state of Minnesota,” Barnes said. “I was intrigued enough by the idea to say that I’d be interested in exploring the possibility, though I never really dreamed it would actually happen. Alec joined Mark and me as the third member of the original ‘triumvirate’ of Founding Producing Directors.”

The idea spread like wildfire. Shortly after the three decided to embark on the new adventure, Maggy Jacquim, the Artistic Director of the Theatre du Mississippi at the time, heard about the trio's plan and made a phone call to Hauck. Jacquim, whose husband, Will Kitchen, served on the Planning Commission, began what Barnes called the “full court press” to get the festival to settle in Winona.

“In August of 2002, Mark was invited to meet with a few interested people in Winona, which led to a much larger meeting in September,” Barnes said. “Alec and I traveled to Minnesota and toured the city with Pat Mutter [Visit Winona director], met with people at City Hall and shared a Powerpoint presentation about the theater we dreamed of starting.”

The three engaged in several personal discussions about the possibility of bringing the festival closer to the cities, but the rivertown charm of Winona was too much to overlook. A week later, it was decided that Winona would be home to the festival.

Moving in and setting up shop

Barnes and his assembled team of producers scoured the country for talent performers, and put together an acting company and crew that even he never dreamed would be part of the first season. In the summer of 2004, the GRSF made its debut in Winona.

“Other than staring at budget figures, which we do all the time, I’d say the most frightening moment was right after we accepted the city’s invitation and realized that this was actually going to happen,” Barnes said. “So often you have these kinds of dreams, but it’s rare that they are actually realized. Scarier still might have been opening weekend of our very first season.”

Season one opened with the performances of "Winter’s Tale" and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," one of Shakespeare’s most popular works.

“The stakes could not have been higher with the first performances of the first season of a brand new theater,” Barnes said. “Not all professions put their work on the line in such a way as do people making a living in the theater.”

The first season was received extremely well and the popularity of the festival has steadily grown. In early August 2012, GRSF wrapped up the ninth season, a record-setting season in attendance and ticket sales. More than 13,000 tickets were sold to events, which pushed the total festival attendance beyond 17,000 people.

“We tackled 'King Lear,' and mounted successful productions of 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' and 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),'” Barnes said. “I’m proud of the fact that we were not afraid to take risks.”

The moments in between

Like any summer-long theater festival, actors, producers, designers, and staff involved with the event spend enormous amounts of time with one another. As the days pass, once comfortable apartments seem to become smaller, practices become more tiring, and weeks can seem like months. But sometimes, however, as much fun is taking place off stage as on.

Barnes describes the living quarters at East Lake apartments on the Winona State University campus as spacious, quiet when you need them to be, and alive with activity when you want them to be.

“I love being in the same building as the full company,” Barnes said. “It promotes great community and easy esprit de corps. We’re also a ‘family-friendly’ company, which means people’s spouses, partners, and children are able to visit during the course of the season. It’s not unusual to find Doug Scholz-Carlson’s daughters practicing their unicycle skills in the long hallways.”

Barnes makes a trip down memory lane when asked about the best and worst moments of his GRSF career. Topping his list of most frightening moments is an event during yet another Minnesota storm. But his time it was thunder and lightning threatening him and Brian Frederick, former company member and development director.

“He and I had to take down the concert tent during a ferocious, unexpected thunder and lightning storm that swept through a performance two summers ago,” Barnes detailed. “That was pretty frightening. Fortunately, Lauren Smith, assistant stage manager, and a bevy of quick-responding apprentice actors came to our aid. Though the tent was shredded, no lives were lost.”

Barnes also speaks of the endless number of joyous moments during his time at GRSF. Watching someone new to the festival and to Shakespeare experience a play for the first time was one of the highlights. The different performances in which actors Dan Colman and Chris Sheard performed the role of Francis Flute in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" were also joyous memories. If Shakespeare fans remember correctly, Francis Flute is forced to play the role of a woman, eliciting many laughs and some embarrassment.

Barnes said he will fondly remember the yearly tradition of toasting the new season. The full company assembles on a bluff top shortly after a rehearsal to commemorate the new season and remember the life of Rosemary Ingham, the festival’s first costume designer, who passed away in 2008.

Out of all the hilarious, frightening, somber moments, one is burned into his memory that made every struggle, long day and sleepless night seem worth it all.

“One morning, Alec and I were having coffee at Mugby Junction on Huff Street. We were approached by a father who interrupted our conversation long enough to thank us, not just for what we had done for Winona, but specifically for making it possible for his son to come to know and love Shakespeare’s plays,” Barnes said. “His son began seeing festival productions when he was in the fourth grade, which confirmed Alec’s and my oft-spoken, informal notation that ‘any fourth grader can understand Shakespeare’s plays,’ if only you do them well.”

Moving on but never forgetting

The curtain has fallen on the ninth GRSF season, the company members and staff have returned home, and Barnes has taken his bow for the final time as Artistic and Producing Director. Throughout his time in Winona, Barnes said he has met many interesting people and has to thank a town that was so gracious in believing in his dream.

“I have begun to develop an appreciation and understanding of the power of the river. Spending time this close to the Mississippi has had a deep and lasting impact on me,” he explained. “There is so much intelligence and sophistication to be found in the people of Winona.”

As Barnes takes one last glance at his 11 years with the company, he said he feels honored and grateful to have been such an integral part of a festival that places such high value on theater and community participation.

“It’s a very humbling kind of reward, fueled and affirmed by people’s trust, faith, and friendship,” he said.

Barnes will direct a play for the GRSF 2013 season, but what lies ahead for the director is a blank slate. Barnes said he is looking forward to pursuing other dreams and adventures. Although he is stepping down, he isn’t quitting the festival, but leaving it in the capable hands of his successor, longtime festival member and friend, Doug Scholz-Carlson.

“This is really just a change in my relationship with the festival, not a severing of ties,” he said. “With Doug in charge as the Artistic Director, I’m confident the principles on which we built the festival will be preserved and fostered in the years to come. And, I suspect Doug will invite me back to direct in future seasons.”

Barnes said he hopes to slow down for the time being in his hometown of Ashland, Ore., where he plans to welcome friends from Winona. He'll attend Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays, and said he anticipates using his personal time to travel.

As the City of Winona anticipates yet another successful, whirlwind Shakespeare festival, Barnes said he has every confidence that it will only get better.

“I think the GRSF future is incredibly bright,” he said. “We seem to have inspired and galvanized a community. It’ll take continued commitment from many people on all kinds of levels to build on the astonishing success of our ten years; that’s just the nature of not-for-profit work. But, if the first decade is any indication, the decades ahead are nothing but full of promise.”

Scholz-Carlson is a Northfield native who is now living in Minneapolis and is heavily involved in the theater scene there and around the country as an actor, choreographer and director. He has been with the GRSF since its inception.

The Festival's Board of Directors is currently engaged in long-term strategic planning. The results of that planning along with details about GRSF's 2013/10th Anniversary Season will be discussed at the Festival's second annual Stakeholders Meeting, Monday, November 5, from 4:30 - 6:30 PM at the Winona County History Center. The event is free and open to the public.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) is a nonprofit, professional theatre company in Winona, MN. Dedicated to dynamic productions of Shakespeare’s plays, education and community outreach programs, and theatre training, GRSF has become an integral part of the Winona community. More information about the company can be found at www.grsf.org or by calling the GRSF office at (507) 474-7900.



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