Former Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Artistic Director Paul Barnes (right), was celebrated for his work in founding and leading the festival during Paul Barnes Day, June 30, as declared by Winona Mayor Mark Peterson. Doug Scholz-Carlson (left), has taken over as artistic director after serving as GRSF assistant director and actor since 2003.
How Shakespeare came to Winona, and what's next for Will
Cultivating talent, composing extensive emails at four in the morning, shaking hands and remembering names two years later ó this was the work of former GRSF Artistic Director Paul Barnes. After ten years, the man behind the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) stepped down last month. Calling the festival a cultural and economic boon the city, Winona Mayor Mark Peterson declared June 30 to be Paul Barnes Day. The plays that have become a cultural magnet for this island city began as an idea thrown around by three directors which developed into a renowned Shakespeare company, a strong business, and a perennial must-see. Barnes helped to found GRSF with directors Alec Wild and Mark Hauck; together they managed to convince accomplished actors from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere to come to Winona and to throw in their lots with the infant festival.
"It was an interesting thing to bring all these people from all over," said actor Jonathan Daly. "What we had in common was Paul Barnes or Alec Wild."
Like his colleagues in the cohort of actors who have been with the festival since day one, Daly had worked with Barnes for years when he got a call in 2003 offering him a spot in the fledgling company. Barnes had worked with hundreds of actors across the country through various theaters "and kind of catalogued them away. 'Whenever I start a theatre I want these people with me,'" Daly explained.
When they agreed to come in 2003, Daly and his colleagues could not know whether GRSF would be a financial flop or a hit, but knowing that Barnes and Wild were behind the project was enough to win them over.
"There are a lot of people like me who have worked for Paul, believe in his aesthetic, and want to work for him wherever he is," explained current GRSF Artistic Director and actor Doug Scholz-Carlson. "A lot of people who would get paid more at another theatre are willing to come to us because they believe in his aesthetic." Scholz-Carlson joined the company as an actor in 2003, has worked as assistant director since 2006, and was selected to serve as head of the festival when Barnes retired last month.
Actor Michael Fitzpatrick explained that part of the vision is a commitment to "good clear story-telling." GRSF has nearly twice as much time to rehearse its plays than other Shakespeare productions Fitzpatrick has taken part in. The extra time and help from Shakespeare scholars in deeply understanding the words of the plays, and learning details such as, 'What is a codpiece?' makes all the difference. "Iíve opened shows where none of us knew what the hell we were saying. I did the same plays two years later, and realized, 'Oh, that's what this is about,'" Fitzpatrick said. "We [at GRSF] know what every word means and what every sentence is saying. Itís kind of helpful. Otherwise youíre just moving around in fancy costumes ó it looks very pretty and nobody knows what is happening," he added.
Another aspect of Barnes' reputation that drew Fitzpatrick from New York City and GRSF Actor Christopher Gerson from Chicago was the director's personality. Barnes has a record for building relationships and connections with the people he works with and treating them as valued partners and friends.
Fitzpatrick related the story of his first audition with Barnes. Auditions are typically "pretty brutal," he said, as in the stereotypical "Thank you. Next!" Barnes, however, "walked from behind the table and shook my hand. I didn't see him for a couple years and he remembered my name," Fitzpatrick said. "He's a great person and a great director."
"Heís pretty remarkable with names and making human connections to people," Scholz-Carlson said of Barnes. The former GRSF head would often stop or go out of his way on cross-country journeys to catch a meal with an actor or director he worked with years ago.
"He has this great sense of connection and loyalty to people," Gerson said. "That's rare, especially in American theatre right now." Barnes saved a spot in the acting company for Fitzpatrick, who was unable to make the first season. The theatre business is usually much more opportunistic, the actor explained. Barnes makes long-term commitments to people, Daly said. "As long as they want to stay with him, he is going to be an opportunity for them." Gerson described Barnes as "exceedingly loyal." He added, "[Barnes] makes this investment in people. He sees the talent, invests in it over time."
Daly said Barnes shocked him with the difficulty of some of the roles the director challenged him to perform, but that challenge, combined with Barnes' faith in Daly's ability, empowered him to become a more versatile actor than he ever thought was possible. "I had incredible opportunities as an actor and my confidence levels soared just because there was this guy who really believed in me. That's becoming more and more of a rarity."
in a new role
New GRSF Artistic Director Scholz-Carlson said he feels good about taking over the company "because we have such a good group of people." Scholz-Carlson, an actor by training, has had an increasing presence in the logistics and business of the festival for the last seven years, coordinating backstage logistics, building the festival's website and social media presence, choreographing scenes, and performing in lead roles.
Scholz-Carlson agreed he is not facing too many abrupt adjustments as he steps into his new role as artistic director, but "there have been those times when I would have waited for Paul to step forward and make a little talk, and then I realize that's me now," he said. "I'm not just weighing in on this decision, I actually have to listen to everyone else weigh in and make a decision."
Scholz-Carlson, a Twin Cities native and former artistic director of the now-closed Grand Marais Shakespeare Festival, was described as exceptionally energetic, hardworking, and humble by his peers.
Referring to a GRSF video in which Scholz-Carlson pretends to be a super-hero in his King Henry V outfit, which looks a lot like a set of hockey pads and a cape, Fitzpatrick said, "He is a super-hero. I don't how he does it. He's inexhaustible."
"His energy level is remarkable; you really need that kind of unquenchable energy to do this job," Daly said of Scholz-Carlson. He added that "Doug could not be a better ambassador to community."
It is fitting that Scholz-Carlson plays Henry V, Gerson said. "In all of Shakespeare's histories, we really only get one good-guy king and that's Henry. He lacks pride and connects with everyone from peasants to nobles, and that really matches Doug."
Scholz-Carlson said he does not have plans to make significant changes to the festival. His longtime fellow actors did not expect drastic changes either, saying that Scholz-Carlson strongly shares Barnes' and the festivals' core values. Gerson said that bringing in an outside director to take over a company can be a rough transition. "We wonít have to take any steps backward to adjust to this new transition," he said.
"It's going to be a really interesting time for the festival now," Scholz-Carlson said. The festival is financially healthy at a time when other arts organizations have suffered. That "is a testament to Winona," he said.
Winona leaders pressed hard to get GRSF to make the island city its home. Compared to other locations, where theater companies must convince communities of their worth, that was unique and exciting, festival leaders said.
As the community considers plans for Levee Park and the downtown area, "Winona is starting to think a lot about what it wants to be in the future," Scholz-Carlson said. As GRSF and the city move forward, he hopes the festival will continue to be part of Winona's unique identity.