Something’s cooking with Shakespeare…

I was driving around the other day and I spotted Paul Barnes and Jeff Stevenson walking down the sidewalk. A little while later I was driving around again and saw Alec Wild and Doug Scholz-Carlson ambling along. You know what that means, right?

Well yes, it means I’m probably killing the planet driving around so much in my SUV. Sorry about that. But it also means something’s cooking with the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Those four men form the underpinnings for GRSF, they are the creative brain and the driving force behind a festival that is unquestionably transforming Winona into a place lovers of the arts want to be.

When GRSF folks first came on the horizon about nine years ago and said they thought Winona would be perfect for a Shakespeare festival, I think the community gave them kind of a blank stare. A lot of people were skeptical, asking questions like, “Who are you guys?” “How did you even *find* Winona?” and (ahem) “Who exactly is Shakespeare again?”

It is true that at the time Winona was a little slim on the cultural pickings, with people far more likely to spend their Saturday evening on the softball field than in a theater, and more likely to talk over coffee about bowling leagues rather than, of all things, what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote the Tempest.

But Barnes could feel it – this vibration in Winona that told him it was a community that could blossom and flourish under the gentle rain of quality, approachable theater, and he and his cohorts were undaunted. Even when some couldn’t see the vision, Barnes and his colleagues believed hard enough for everybody and then some. In Winona, with its rich beauty, perfect location and arts-hungry residents, they saw the same glimmer of the communities in Oregon and Utah where Shakespeare has become the lifeblood of tourism. It could happen here, they said, if people could open their hearts and minds and believe a little bit too.

Well guess what – Barnes was right. The GRSF gurus were in town last week laying the groundwork for season eight, and it has been eight years of transformation that is turning this sleepy river town into an arts mecca.

Last year, amid impossible economic circumstances, the Great River Shakespeare Festival increased its ticket sales by 50%. That, folks, should tell you something. This theater company has created momentum through unwavering zeal, attentive planning and perceptive promotion. Of course, hand-picking a cast of professional Shakespearean actors from across the country has certainly helped too, but more than anything GRSF has broken down the barriers of Shakespeare by creating unprecedented access and people keep coming back for more.

Ten thousand people sat in seats for performances of GRSF last season. Seriously, that’s a lot of people, and each year more of them are coming from locales far away for a taste of this festival’s sweet success.

For Winona, that translates into lifeblood –  to being part of its identity. For the founders of GRSF, it has got to feel like a Shakespearean Field of Dreams… they built it, and people are coming. As they put down the foundation for season eight, organizers are no doubt anticipating what will come, but now they have a community of Shakespeare lovers breathlessly anticipating too.

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