Great River Shakespeare Festival putting fair Winona on the map

Zachery Michael Fine, Evan Fuller, Jonathan Gillard Daly, and Christopher Hirsh (<i>Taming of the Shrew</i>, 2008)

Zachery Michael Fine, Evan Fuller, Jonathan Gillard Daly, and Christopher Hirsh (Taming of the Shrew, 2008)

Looking to get a little closer to the actors you see onstage?

At the Great River Shakespeare Festival, performers have gotten nearly instant feedback about their work—sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, while they were out shopping after a show.

Those close ties with the audience and the community (the festival is in tiny Winona, in the southeastern corner of the state) have, in a few short years since the fest's debut in 2004, turned a simple dream into a thriving event with nearly 10,000 visitors each year. This season, the company presents a trio of Shakespeare works in repertory—Love's Labours Lost, The Tempest, and Hamlet (performed by the Intern/Apprentice Company). The 2009 festival runs from June 25 to July 26.

"We think of ourselves as a contemporary, accessible festival," says Paul Barnes, the producing director. The festival has staged Shakespeare both traditionally and contemporaneously. "We strive to let the text lead the way and hope that all other decisions follow."

The festival began to germinate in 2002 as the brainchild of Minneapolis designer and teacher Mark Hauck, who teamed with Barnes and Alec Wild at the University of Minnesota. The trio began talking about creating a Shakespeare festival for Minnesota.

Festivals of this sort are dotted across North America and they include Stratford in Canada, Ashland in Oregon, and Spring Green in Wisconsin. The group found a receptive community in Winona looking for a way to draw folks to the picturesque town on the banks of the Mississippi. The location means visitors can be flexible—treating the jaunt either as a day trip (it's a scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Twin Cities) or as a mini-vacation, says company general manager Jeff Stevenson.

Befitting the small-town atmosphere, the festival's theater—Winona State University's Performance Arts Center—seats only 435. "There is little division between the script, the performers, and playgoers. We're all in the same room," Barnes says.

The company includes a mix of Actor's Equity, non-Equity, and intern performers. "Our actors are from all over the country: Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, Los Angeles, and all manner of places in between," says Barnes, adding that about half of the company comes from within the state.

The festival also sponsors an array of concerts by regional musicians, and discussions including a series of Sunday-afternoon "Front Porch Conversations" with actors, authors, political columnists, Shakespeare scholars, and others. "We take the term 'festival' seriously," Barnes says.

Ultimately, the goal is to present Shakespeare's work with vigor and honesty, and to make it accessible to all audiences.

"We believe that Shakespeare, done well, can be understood by any fourth-grader," Barnes says, "And we've actually had parents of fourth-graders approach us in local coffeehouses to tell us that their sons and daughters have grown to love Shakespeare, thanks to the work we're doing."

For information on the Great River Shakespeare Festival, call 507.474.7900 or visit