Winona Shakespeare festival seeks bigger audience for the bard

Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival draws actors from across the globe each summer to stage the bard’s classic works. This year,  the festival’s 10th season, organizers hope to lure a lot more Minnesota audiences, too.

The company is staging performances of King Henry V and Twelfth Night. King Henry V is essentially a meditation on leadership and stars Doug Scholz-Carlson in the title role.  It’s a fitting choice, since  Scholz-Carlson just inherited the job of festival artistic director from his colleague Paul Barnes.

Stephanie Lambourn and Doug Scholz-Carlson in Great River Shakespeare Festival's production of King Henry V. Photo by Michal Daniel.

“Shakespeare has such a big heart; King Henry V could easily be either be pro-war or anti-war, but what he gives us is a real complex play,” said Scholz-Carlson, still a bit breathless from a recent afternoon matinee.

Since opening in 2004, Great River has attracted performers from New York, California, Oregon and even as far away as Australia, as well as a handful from here in the Midwest. Year after year, they return to the small riverside town for six weeks of intense rehearsals followed by six weeks of equally intense performances at the Performing Arts Center on the Winona State University campus.

Scholz-Carlson lives in Minnesota year round, a factor he thinks will help keep the company moving forward as it looks to develop its season beyond the summer festival.

“In an organization like this there’s the founder’s energy and, often at the start, people put in time we simply can’t pay for,” said Scholz-Carlson. “But now we’re running at a pace where we can hire the staff and do the work – it’s possible to have new people come in and the theater will still survive.”

Donny Repsher, John Maltese, Tarah Flanagan, Corey Allen, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Stephanie Lambourn, Jamie Dufault, and Katie Bowler in Great River Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Michal Daniel.

One of the company’s greatest challenges, though,  is reaching out to neighboring communities and convincing potential audiences in the Twin Cities and other metro areas to make the trip to Winona.

“On the East Coast you have events like Tanglewood Music Festival that are intentionally located in rural areas. Here in the Midwest we don’t have this tradition of leaving the city to see some of the most important art that’s going on … yet.”

Scholz-Carlson hopes Great River may someday rival Shakespeare festivals like those Utah and Oregon.

In the meantime, the company is doing its best to spread the word through clever and compelling videos.

Great River Shakespeare Festival runs through August 4.