Winona is the setting, subject, and, partly, the creator of a special play the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) is putting on next month. “All the Town’s a Stage: A Winona Story” is the festival’s first community-engaged theater project. It looks to enlist Winonans to act out the stories of other Winonans in a project organizers hope will provoke conversation and build connections.

Over the course of the past year-plus, GRSF partnered with local organizations and community members to tell their stories. The festival will hold open auditions at the end of this month for community members to act in a play based on those stories to be performed July 29-31 at Winona’s East Recreation Center.

The production started last summer with story circles — essentially open-ended discussions about community members’ experiences that ultimately fueled the plot of the play. “We invite folks to come in, we sit in a circle, we ask questions, and that leads to storytelling,” explained GRSF Community Outreach Coordinator Heather Lee Echeverria, who facilitated the discussions. 

The groups that agreed to take part were Home and Community Options (HCO) — an organization that provides housing and support for individuals with developmental disabilities — Winona Health, and Our Voices, a Black student group.

“It was actually a really awesome opportunity to talk about our overall experience as health care providers,” Winona Health Director of Surgical Services Angie Johannes said.

“One thing that’s really important whenever you do this kind of work — we don’t have an agenda,” GRSF Producer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz said. “We don’t know what the stories are going to be.”

Echeverria described some of the discussion prompts at story circles, explaining, “It can be as vague as … what does community mean to you? Some of the questions can be really really specific, like, tell me about the oldest thing in your home that you can hold in your hand and what is it like?”

For the Winona Health staff, what bubbled up were their experiences during the pandemic: long hours of sweating under layers of PPE, dealing with staffing shortages, and seeing families lose loved ones without being able to say goodbye. “Also being worried about bringing [COVID] home to our families,” Johannes said. “That was a stressor that each and every one of us had.” The discussions were also full of pride in how the team handled those challenges. “We were there 110 percent for the community, and all of our caregivers were part of that being there,” she said. She added, “It was a great opportunity to speak about our experiences; it brought us closer, too, I think.”

“The Our Voices stories told by students, by people in their teens, about some of the struggles they’ve faced in schools and in the community were really powerful,” Director Beth Gardiner said. She added, “There’s nothing like hearing a 12-year-old kid being bullied in school. It’s heartbreaking.”

In story circles last summer, HCO clients and staff talked about some of the challenges of the pandemic, as well, GRSF staff said, but in follow-up conversations this spring, playwrights adapted their script. “They’re in a new place this year, so we’ve actually made a lot of adjustments to the script … about how we can honor where HCO finds themselves now versus a year ago when we were talking to them,” Gardiner said.

“They do really feel like three separate stories that are being tied together rather brilliantly by our playwrights,” Alcaraz said. A unifying theme in the play is resilience in the face of challenges, he said. Another is, “What does Winona mean to you?”

At one story circle, Echeverria said one person shared, “They had lived in Winona for 20-plus years, and they had never felt welcomed in the community. The next story circle, we had someone say they had lived in Winona for one year and they felt like they had lived here their whole life … So there were many stories of the community coming out to support people in their struggles, but then on the flip side we had so many people saying that really wasn’t their experience.”

GRSF held check-ins with the local groups as the script was developed this year to garner feedback and make adjustments. “If you have that accountability and those check-ins, it shows the community that you really want to engage with them and it also keeps you honest,” Alcaraz said.

“So much of this process is about this constant feedback loop in this community to get it right,” Gardiner said. “There has been some really hard stuff that people shared with us. The play comes from loving Winona and wanting it to be its best self,” she added.

The pandemic was a traumatic experience for many, said Sarah Johnson, a local artist who is working with GRSF on “All the Town’s A Stage.” “One of the impacts of trauma is narrowing our ability to see complexity and nuance, which is challenging in a world that is more and more complex,” she said. Like the improv comedy mantra “yes and,” “All the Town’s a Stage” challenges Winonans to see the beauty and the struggles of their community at once, to see the many different experiences of what living in Winona means, Johnson said. “That’s what we’re asking the audience to do, is say, ‘Yes, this is true, and this is true, and this is true,’” she said.

Theater can sometimes touch people in a way other media cannot, Alcaraz said. After falling in love with community-engaged theater (and his future wife) at Cornerstone Theater Company in 1994, Alcaraz went on to co-found Brown Bag Theater Company — a Latinx community-engaged theater company at the University of California Irvine. After seeing a play that recounted the true story of campus service workers trying to unionize, a university administrator who had turned down those workers came forward to apologize. “That’s the kind of empathy you can get from this,” Alcaraz said.

At another Brown Bag play — about the experience of Latinx students — an audience member choked up as he thanked the cast after the show. “He had never seen his story represented in that way,” Echeverria explained. 

Hopefully, “All the Town’s a Stage” will be able to share stories that haven’t been told and get people to listen to them in a deeper way, Alcaraz said. 

Along with that storytelling, the production itself is a community-building exercise. There’s nothing like putting on a play to bond a group, Alcaraz said. “By the time this play ends, there are going to be friendships formed that wouldn’t have been formed otherwise,” he said.

“When I think about positive change, the only way that’ll come about is relationship building, and for situations that are complex and historically unheard, that’s going to take time,” Johnson said. “That’s why I say this is not the ending. Hopefully, this will just be the beginning of conversations and action and relationship building.”

In the play, Winona residents will get a chance to perform alongside professional actor Alex Campbell, who is playing the lead in “Twelfth Night,” and actors in GRSF’s professional training program, as well as work with the company’s talented crew.

Open auditions for “All the Town’s a Stage” are scheduled for June 28-29, with the time and location to be determined. Check for details, or email to express interest in participating.

“Everybody should come audition — no acting experience necessary,” Gardiner said. “The audition experience is going to be fun and something you can just walk in and do, so people shouldn’t be nervous about not having acted before.” The rehearsals are planned for nights and weekends to accommodate busy schedules. 

Gardiner added there will be opportunities for Winonans to join in behind the scenes, as well. “Help with marketing or help with costumes or work with the sound designer on what the soundtrack of Winona is. There’s so much to do, and we welcome everybody,” she said.