Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival is looking to crack open new and old markets after 10 years of performances.
Marcia Aubineau had never been to Winona.
Aubineau, an avid theatergoer in the Twin Cities, often sees 50 shows a year. She had heard of Great River Shakespeare Festival, but it was “way down in Winona.”
At a friend’s invitation, Aubineau went to Winona to see “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Hamlet” on the festival’s opening weekend. After which she instantly made plans to return the following weekend for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
“I guess I thought it might be community theater, but it was terrific, and Winona was beautiful,” Aubineau said.
She went on about southeast Minnesota’s bluff country, the bookstores, museums, musical performances at parks along the river, artistic attractions — and a coffeehouse in nearby Fountain City, Wis., where you can peer through binoculars and watch bald eagles feed their young.
Aubineau’s experience crystallizes the success and the challenge of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Now in its 11th season, the event has a loyal following, reasonably stable finances and a solid reputation for performance. Yet, the festival has struggled to gain traction in the Twin Cities and other regional centers such as Rochester and La Crosse, Wis. Leaders lamented in a recent Winona Post column that “we are finding that almost 70 percent of Winonans have not attended” the festival.
“We’ve talked about that quite a bit,” said Tedd Morgan, the board chairman who runs a local manufacturing company. “In 11 years, I’m surprised at how many people haven’t heard of us.”
Indeed. You can spot a few banners while driving the Winona streets, but there is the unmistakable sense, once you enter the leafy campus of Winona State, that you are at a university performing-arts center — not in a singular festival home.
Morgan and other community leaders who give generously have high hopes for a leadership team put in place within the past year that is grounded in Winona and the Twin Cities.
For years, founding director Paul Barnes shuttled in from his home in Ashland, Ore., to run the event. Barnes, who returned to direct “Merry Wives,” said it was time to pass the job to someone with Minnesota connections.
Doug Scholz-Carlson, who succeeded Barnes, has Twin Cities roots as an actor, director and fight choreographer.
Aubineau heard Scholz-Carlson speak at a “friend-raising party” in Minneapolis.
“He had this heartfelt enthusiasm for this project,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I’m going to go see what this is all about.’ ”
How do you reach the next level?
Barnes, director Alec Wild and designer Mark Hauck founded the festival in 2004, producing two Shakespeare plays over four weeks with a repertory company at the Winona State performing-arts center.
Barnes had experience with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and the founders said they dreamed of annual ticket sales reaching 45,000 by Year 10 and an eight-month season in a new facility.
It didn’t work out that way. Hauck left before the third season in a dispute with Wild and Barnes about the direction of the festival. Wild departed after that season, leaving Barnes on his own — but with a board of directors that was determined to keep the event afloat.
Total attendance peaked in 2012, when 11,295 tickers were sold to three plays. The best average (69 percent capacity in a 408-seat house) came in 2010, and the festival remains at Winona State with no foreseeable change in residence. Individual donors, corporations, some foundation funding and State Arts Board money (including Legacy funds) provide the bulk of the roughly $900,000 annual budget.
The university setting allows for synergies and efficiencies. Students are eager volunteers and occupancy costs are reasonable. However, if the festival is to expand — perhaps into the autumn, when the colorful river bluffs draw tourists to Winona — the university is no longer an option because school is in session.
“I would like to take this to the next level, year-round,” said Will Kitchen, the festival’s top fundraiser and the civic activist who first courted Barnes, Hauck and Wild to come to Winona. Kitchen, a retired performance consultant with IBM, understands that his desire depends on money and facilities.
“We need to market ourselves as this vibrant, exciting place that has arts and recreation,” he said. “If we can get people here once, we can get them to come back.”
Challenge of making the trip
Getting people to the plays — even people who live in Winona — is the challenge facing Scholz-Carlson, executive director Lee Gundersheimer and their staff.
“You are here to be involved in the community,” said Rob Thomas, director of community engagement and company manager.
Thomas moved to Winona from Minneapolis. He and Scholz-Carlson do lots of presentations to employees at Winona’s industrial and manufacturing firms, pushing lower-priced, preseason ticket sales.
Breaking into the Twin Cities market, Thomas said, is tough.
“We have ideas great and small,” he said. “I’d like to get a bunch of theater people to take the Amtrak down. The journey has to be part of the experience.”
Scholz-Carlson also might be inclined to tap the Twin Cities market for talent more than Barnes did. Carlyle Brown, the Minneapolis playwright/actor/director, performed his show “Therapy and Resistance” on opening weekend as part of the Front Porch series.
“There’s a community here that’s appreciative and hungry for the arts,” Brown said.
Three actors (including Scholz-Carlson) have Twin Cities ties. Sigrud Sutter has moved to Chicago, but worked with Classical Actors Ensemble in Minneapolis. Steve Hendrickson, familiar on several local stages, is playing Polonius in “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz,” and he is the most interesting actor on stage as Ford in “Merry Wives.”
“That’s something they are working to address,” Hendrickson said, when asked about the paucity of Twin Cities players. “They tend to be loyal to people who have stayed here, so it’s an ongoing challenge.”
Indeed, on opening night of “Merry Wives,” Rosemary Broughton of Winona, who sees every show a couple of times, said she looks forward to seeing the same actors return each year.
“They belong to us,” she said. “I miss the ones who don’t come back.”
Aubineau symbolizes a balance with Broughton. She has no history with the festival. She’s discovered something she only vaguely knew existed and she represents the new markets Great River needs to tap if it is to expand.
“I had heard of the festival,” Aubineau said, “but it was in Winona and I thought, do I really want to drive for two hours to see a play? It was just not on my radar. But it is now.”
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299