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  Saturday January 31st, 2015    

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Personal reflections on 10 years of the GRSF (07/28/2013)
From: Charlotte M. Speltz, Ed. D., Ret. Professor of Counselor Education, WSU

My heartfelt thanks to the Winona Post for its extensive coverage of the Great River Shakespeare Festival this summer, and all the nine summers before! You have given us in-depth interviews with directors and members of the acting company, complete coverage of events, marvelous reviews of every play, and sincere editorials lauding the GRSF. Your support is a gift to a deserving group!

With both local papers covering the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF), one would think that everyone in Winona is aware of these remarkable plays! Sadly, this is not the case. Some people do not know that Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University for five weeks for TEN YEARS. Others assume they cannot compare to Twin Cities venues. I invite anyone in either of these groups to “come and see.” and marvel. I have heard visitors state that they actually prefer the GRSF over several regional venues!

When the Great River Shakespeare Festival began in 2004, who could foresee how much this professional acting company, in residence every summer, would mean to Winona and to each of us personally? Just how far have all of us come, I wondered, after a decade together?

For answers, I went to my ten-year collection of main stage playbills, apprentice/intern production programs, notes from Front Porch Conversations and special events, newspaper clippings, book-marks, marketing info, letters to the editor (including my own), invitations, notecards, and several pins. As a “Setting the Stage” contributor I received a pin. Another came from Friends of Will for ushering several years. Three pins announced the Will’s Opening Weekends (W.O.W. buttons).

Although I buy T-shirts every year, few survive. My favorite is still “Where There’s a Will There’s a Play”, too faded to be seen in public. Wearing my “I AM THE MAN!” shirt this summer has generated many questions and comments.

The present logo links the letters GRSF vertically. This depicts well the interlocking relationships and collaboration among many community entities. Winona State University has always provided affordable housing for the members of the acting company. Gradually, all events were moved to the WSU campus by 2013, and the festival is more accessible for locals and visitors.

Over the years, professors from St. Mary’s University (SMU) and Winona State University (WSU) have moderated “Will Reads” summer discussions, participated in Shakespeare Symposiums (which became Shakespeare Unlocked this summer), and led a winter collegium which ponders each act. SMU has offered “for credit” courses in teaching, writing and directing. WSU began a Roads Scholar program focused on the Festival in 2006.

Business sponsorships continue to be integral to the success of the festival. Every year the numbers grow. Collaborations with other organizations, among them the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Frozen River Film Festival, Paul Watkins Gallery and Theatre du Mississippi, have given us art exhibits, costume designs/displays, access to cutting-edge movies, “Drops and Drama” which showcased 1909 hand-painted scenic drops, and Preludes/Concerts on the green.

Early on, the “Friends of Will” began a volunteer effort which has become a mainstay of the GRSF. (See story page 1A.)

Playbills have changed.. Many of us were glad when a synopsis of the action was included, putting the play in historical context. By 2012, a larger, more polished program made reading the type easier, (especially for us elders), and accommodated the expanding list of contributors (yea!).

Marketing material continues to improve. The 2013 brochure especially gives the reader an easy-to-understand and comprehensive list of all events, including the concerts. I can easily show friends the various events to choose from over the summer. I always recommend the Festival Mornings/Ask the Company, a free question/response hour to interact with actors and get to know them. I also urge Winonans to go to the grsf.org or the Visit Winona website, sign up for the monthly GRSF newsletter, and gain access to the absolutely incredible videos now made by company members. Many can be seen on You-Tube.

Opening times for matinees and evening performances have changed, making it easier for audiences to travel and attend. In 2004, the times were 4:30 and 8:00 p.m. By 2013 these became 1:00 matinees during the week and 7:00 p.m. (weekdays) or 7:30 p.m. (weekends). Over the past several years a variety of ticket offerings (free previews for each play/season passes/library check-outs/$10 Tuesdays/free student tickets for “Chill with Will”) have made it possible for ANYONE WHO WANTS TO ATTEND TO DO SO.

I discovered quickly that seeing each play ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH! I pulled out my Duke University Shakespeare text (from my sophomore year — 1956!), and purchased Marjorie Garber’s excellent Shakespeare After All. I attended reading discussions with local professors and an overview of set construction, asked questions of everyone, and personally met the actors, directors and designers who make the plays “come alive”.

Along the way, as a regular usher for “Friends of Will,” I was privy to watching as the plays improve throughout the summer! Often, I realized how much I had missed seeing (and hearing) at my first performance. No longer able to usher after 2011, I began inviting people to go with me who had not seen the plays. Proudly, I often see them taking others themselves now!

Apprentice Actors and Technical Theater and Administrative Interns have “come of age” over the years. From a free, one-time performance (2004) the apprentices/interns now have a week-long production in the “Black Box Theater” (2008) and paid tickets for admission. What a thrill to see them perform in their own play, become regular company members the next year, and return the following years as actors, directors, and administrative personnel!

The Front Porch Conversations have always been favorites of mine. Where else could I have heard these discussions: Philosopher Paul Woodruff on reverence (2004); priest Kerry Egan’s personal pilgrimage experience and spiritual renewal (2006); and Martin Moran‘s description of sexual abuse and forgiveness in “The Tricky Part” (2008). Michael Gerson’s personal attention to international problems proved eye-opening (2007). Seeing Bill Bowers mime in “It Goes Without Saying” (2010) was awesome.

This year Gayle Childs Daly enlightened us about her role as a “text coach” and brought greater appreciation for how actors prepares for their roles. The two “Shakespeare Unlocked” sessions taught me history I had never heard and introduced new ideas.

In 2005, the renowned Shakespeare scholar Dr. Peter Saccio was first invited, and in the years since his learned and entertaining conversations have become a hallmark of GRSF. important! How exciting it was to meet him personally! His topics are always pertinent to the plays being performed. This one focused on “Going to War in King Henry V”.

The sonnet contest, now named for Maria W. Faust, has become a part of the Front Porch series. You can hear the winning sonnets on Saturday, August 3, in the WSU Science Atrium at 10:30. a.m. The reception is free and open to the public. In recent years GRSF has also brought us “The Daly News” by our own Jon Daly, and “The Fantasticks” which was as good as the one I saw in New York. As we all laughed aloud at “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” we were also motivated to read plays we did not know.

Three years ago the first Callithump was introduced, and the first GRSF quilt raffle held. Shakespeare for Young Actors began three years ago, and has developed into levels I and II, including a focus on design.

I am deeply grateful to all the founding members of the acting company who have returned, and whom I now know personally. They and the “roles of a lifetime” I have heard — and seen — them act are too many to name. I applaud their genuine portrayal of the characters, their dedication and discipline to discern the depth of meaning in Shakespeare’s text, and the clarity with which they speak. Their love for the Winona community is obvious. Truly, Winona is their “second home”, to which they return every summer. As a “snowbird” from NC now, I can identify!

Thank you, Paul Barnes, for your ability to convey a vision to all of us and inspire the community to help bring it to fruition. Thank you, Alec Wild, for taking time out from many other duties in July 2008 to teach the five-day “Rhetoric and Writing” class where I learned to write with deep conviction. Thank you, Doug Scholz-Carlson for your ability to wear so many hats, and to be a presenter for me on “Showcasing the Arts” at the Delta Kappa Gamma State Convention in Winona in March 2009.

In Season 11 – 2014, “Hamlet” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” will be produced. To prepare I will listen to Dr. Saccio’s CDs and read the plays. As Doug Scholz-Carlson says (and I have learned): “The play is a conversation between the audience and the actors.”  


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