If you’ve ever been intimidated by Shakespeare, the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) has a heartful message for you – don’t be.
Since 2004, GRSF has made it a mission to bring Shakespeare’s plays to the Winona, Minn. area in an approachable and understandable way.
This summer the company will present Comedy of Errors and Richard III, running through the end of July. In conjunction with the two Shakespearean shows, there will be special productions of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont by Donald Margulies and An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare.
Performances take place at Winona State University. A full schedule of performances and tickets can be found at www.grsf.org.
In order to achieve making Shakespeare accessible to all, Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson said the shows are a combination of great acting, rich text and a pre-show talk before each performance to acclimatize the audience.
“We’re so committed that we are going to do intelligent nuanced performances,” he said. “Shakespeare’s plays are challenging but in the way that they are rewarding. The pre-show is to help people feel invited and not anxious.”
Scholz-Carlson has been with the GRSF since its inception and has acted as Artistic Director for the last four years. This year he is directing Richard III, a show he said has relevance in today’s world and is a prime example of why Shakespeare stands the test of time.
“(The show) is a political game all the way through with a maniacal joy,” he said, describing the lead character as ‘wickedly funny and charismatic.’ “I think there are a lot of parallels with the current political happenings. I think people will see an awful lot of similarities to what is going on in the political world now.”
To balance out the seriousness of Richard III, the company will also be presenting The Comedy of Errors.
“Comedy of Errors… is probably one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays,” Scholz-Carlson said. GRSF’s production is setting the farce in the 1920s, giving it a modern feel that is familiar and non-intimidating humor good for audiences of all ages, he said.
While many Shakespearean festivals begin and end with just the playwright’s work, GRSF has always presented additional shows alongside the Shakespearean productions.
New Jersey resident Chris Mixon is in his 9th season with the GRSF. He makes his living predominantly as a professional actor and said he’s found himself coming back year after year because of the supportive company that thrives to improve itself.
“I love that this festival is so young. This is a festival that still believes it can do it better,” he said. “It’s a company of dreamers, and it’s really great to be a part of it.”
This season Mixon plays the lead role in Shipwrecked as well as two comedic supporting roles in The Comedy of Errors, but he never set out to be a Shakespearean actor necessarily.
“My career has had a lot of Shakespeare in I t… showbusiness is kind of funny – it makes a place for you to be,” he said, adding that once he found himself in a Shakespeare festival in his 30s, his comedic nature seemed to make a place for him in the genre.
While that humor has come natural for the ‘ridiculous roles’ in The Comedy of Errors, Shipwrecked has been an emotional and memory challenge, he said.
With just two other actors in the cast, Shipwrecked gives Mixon a workout as an actor telling a yarn of a story that is something of fiction and something of truth.
“It is the telling of a shipwreck story and we don’t know what all is going on in the world,” Scholz-Carlson said, adding that there are some experiential practical effects that will be entertaining for the whole family.
“I think (audiences) are going to have a great deal of fun,” Mixon said. “From the time they get to the front door, for almost every performance there’s sort of this electricity. No matter the show, there is joy in the building.”
And outside the four shows running, there is much more to the festival.
One main element is educational programming, Mixon said. His wife teaches for the children’s classes and said that they have seen repeat students each season who can’t get enough of the GRSF programming.
Eileen Moeller is a prime example of this. In 2007, she interned with the festival working in the shop.
“It really is an educational program as much as it is a theater company,” she said, adding that after moving to Illinois, she still made an effort to come back every summer to take in the festival.
Moeller came back to GRSF in a more permanent way this past February when she accepted the position of Marketing and Sales Manager. Now Moeller said she has even more insight into how unique and festival is, beginning with the company itself.
“I think it’s unique for several reasons,” she said. “One is the location. Winona is a unique place for a large festival with professionals. Actors and theater professionals wouldn’t necessarily come to a small rural town in Minnesota.”
Beyond that, she said the city has really embraced and supported GRSF.
“The people of Winona are so receptive,” she said, adding that the festival becomes part of the fabric of the summer in the city. “It’s not just another thing to do but it’s an experience. There is a really special sense of community when you attend a play in Winona.”
“We have wonderful patrons and community members who support us – also individual and businesses donors,” she said. “We are just so grateful for all they do. We‘re really grateful for all the partnerships.”
By Megan Proft