The Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) has been attracting dedicated volunteers since its first season in 2004. Peter Flick, one of the founding members of Friends of Will, the festival's volunteer arm, was hesitant about Shakespeare initially, but liked the first season so much that he wanted to be sure the festival continued. “It was a grassroots endeavor,” he said of the Friends of Will.
Photo by Kathy Greden Christenson
Friends of Will volunteers for the Great River Shakespeare Festival work on a quill to be raffled for the benefit of the Festival. Pieces of material from the costume shop are incorporated into the quilt design. Pictured here are, left to right: Connie Larson, Jeanne Oost, Margaret Kiihne, Dee Cipov, and Mary Alice Anderson.
Friends of Will was formed in the winter and spring of 2005, with the blessing of Paul Barnes, Founding Director. The group took on the tasks of ushering, feeding the cast and crew during tech week, helping to move members in and out of the East Lake Apartments, distributing promotional materials, and transporting GRSF company members to and from area airports, along with lots of other needed tasks.
What started out as a group of about 20 volunteers, has since grown to over 350, according to Terri Hawkings, co-chair of the steering committee of Friends of Will (FOW). A recent volunteer recognition event thanked the volunteers for all their hard work. Last year, volunteers logged over 7,000 hours, Hawkings noted. “Everyone on the cast and crew is so humble and gracious; we know they can’t do it without us,” Hawkings added.
Tech week, the week prior to the opening of the plays, is when all the various components — actors, costumes, lights, sound, set, props – come together. FOW volunteers feed the cast and crew both lunch and supper for an entire week. Hawkings noted that the idea originally was to feed the crew, who often work 14 to 16 hour a days. “They are truly captive; they get a half an hour for lunch and a half an hour for dinner; they need it,” Hawkings added.
Mary Alice Anderson, the other co-chair of the steering committee, has also helped out in the costume shop over the years. One of the volunteers’ biggest feats was sewing thousands of tiny little flowers for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The volunteers have also created the quilt that will be raffled off at Callithump on Tuesday, July 30. “The quilt is made from scraps of fabric from the past shows, with 10 blocks, one representing each season,” Anderson explained. The raffle entry fee is $5.
Both Anderson and Hawkings are amazed at the influx of tourism GRSF has brought to Winona. Anderson, who also volunteers at the Winona County History Center, noted a recent comment in the guest book made by visitors from Minneapolis; they wrote “came for Shakespeare and Beethoven, stayed on. History Center is fantastic,” — followed by, “Happy.”
Hawkings, a native of California, loves having the opportunity to meet so many people through FOW. The more she volunteers, the more people she meets, which helps make Hawkings feel more at home. “I feel like I belong here, in Winona; I love Winona,” Hawkings added.
Kathy Christenson became involved with Friends of Will when Karen Fawcett asked her to join the volunteer group. Fawcett looked for volunteers with skills and interests she could match to the festival’s needs, Christenson explained. Christenson has enjoyed putting her photography skills to use for the festival, having done photo shoots of the cast, along with individual and candid shots over the years.
All the volunteers have expressed amazement regarding the amount of work that goes into these productions. “I’ve learned how hard the actors and company members work to put on a performance, to get it to the point of excellence; I think it’s unbelievable,” Flick said. “I think the more involved you are, the more you learn,” Anderson added.
However, what really keeps the volunteers coming back is their love of the festival. “We’ve just been so excited to keep the company in Winona,” Christenson noted.