Perspectives on Outdoor Theater: Paul

Perspectives on Outdoor Theater: Paul

“Dear GRSF” is a new series for our newsletters where staff and company members at Great River Shakespeare Festival answer your questions about the “whys” and “hows” of our company. To submit a question, click here.

Recently, a GRSF patron asked our leadership team, Why don’t you perform outdoors?” Considering that many theaters may now be asked this question – and many may be trying to figure out how they can move outside in order to have socially-distant performances – we thought it an appropriate time to address this question. The answer is a lot bigger than you think, so we asked a few different people about it! Click the links at the bottom of the article to read other responses.

Answer by: Paul Barnes, GRSF Founder

In 2002, when we were invited to come to Winona and consider making the city the home for the Festival, we visited several venues around town: Saint Mary’s Page Theatre, the Winona State University mainstage theatre (now named for Vivian Fusillo), and the old Middle School auditorium; with particular interest on the potential of the Middle School for future development (and Great River being a potential catalyst for that re-purposing). We selected WSU because the design of the theatre seemed the right size for our fledgling operation; because without knowing that Winonans were pretty accustomed to driving out to Saint Mary’s to attend performances by touring music and theatre groups, we didn’t want to be known as that “Shakespeare troupe on the edge of town;” and because Winona State is smack in the middle of town with easy access to businesses as well as residential areas where we would become a visible and friendly presence – “citizenship” and being good guests of our host city was a high priority on our list of goals for establishing the Festival.

I live in a town where you can hear the reverberating echoes of happy playgoers talking about the performance they’ve just seen at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as they walk home in the warm night air of summer, and touring the residential areas surrounding the WSU campus on three sides, I envisioned the same sort of conversational experience for Winona residents as people walked home; passing and potentially talking with their neighbors who might be relaxing and enjoying the evening air on their front porches about the wonderful production they’d just attended. We also loved the proximity of stage to audience, the lack of a defining proscenium arch, and the feeling, not unlike the Angus Bowmer Theatre here in Ashland at OSF, that actors and audience would all be in the same room, providing a direct, visceral connection between play and playgoers. 
I don’t think we saw any appropriate venues for outdoor theatre in Winona during that tour, and with so many decisions to be made and with several attractive venues interested and/or available in becoming our summer home, we settled on the WSU theatre, assisted, I think, by Darrell Kruger, who was the then-President of Winona State University, and a fan of Shakespeare from his days attending the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, Utah (and elsewhere). 

Mostly our decision had two main factors: we wanted to be able to control as many variables as possible, and with a full theatre facility available to us (shop space; rehearsal rooms, lobby, etc. — plus a lovely outdoor area adjacent to the theatre for our weekend pre-show concert series), being indoors in a well-established facility seemed logical and practical.  Second, and probably most important, we had to take into account the weather, which is unpredictable in Southeast Minnesota during the summer. I think that instinct proved correct. I had directed at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where the company went to great lengths to anticipate all sorts of climatic elements: mosquitoes (which are prolific in the summer, and which necessitated “spraying stations” where patrons could cover themselves in Deet or some other repellent before finding their seats); intense heat, thunderstorms which could move in suddenly and cause performance “holds” or, worst case scenario, cancellation, and because of the length of APT’s season, even snow.  

Every time we had a dry, hot, rain-free summer in Winona, I would think, “Golly! We should be performing outdoors,” only to have those thoughts dashed the next summer, during which we would experience plenty of rainy days and nights, which I believed would sink the Festival, figuratively and literally. We simply couldn’t sustain the loss of income or the cancellation of a substantial number of performances, especially given the relative brevity of our season. Moving performances indoors on short notice is a difficult proposition, and we simply weren’t equipped or ready to incorporate that possibility into what we were already doing.

Since then, in the years I’ve become more fully acquainted with Winona, I’ve seen several outdoor settings that might serve nicely as outdoor theatre venues.  When we were still producing opening weekend concerts on the riverfront, I used to think that an outdoor stage, right on the water would be a beautiful and popular setting for Shakespeare.  There’s also a sort of natural amphitheater just south of the baseball diamonds in Lake Park with a view across the Lake that could be lovely (this is the place where I think the City has received a gift or planted a small grove of Japanese maple trees and a low and gentle grassy slope); and the amphitheater in Unity Park, also on the Lake, seems a natural fit as well. Any time I drove up to the monastery above Saint Mary’s and walked the hard-packed road leading back towards the bluff, my imagination led me to “Shakespeare on the Bluffs,” as I envisioned a spectacular place for outdoor Shakespeare. And now there’s the property adjacent to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which without knowing much about it, might complement the museum and make for a terrific indoor-outdoor space. (Don’t get me started about the twin mansions on the hill backing up to the Signatures restaurant across the golf course. I discovered it accidentally when a few of us were invited to a barbecue at a neighboring home, and, at our host’s suggestion, went for a walk to inspect the mostly vacant property, and then created quite a stir because I kept sneaking people up to the property which, with its gracious facade, expansive back lawn, and natural amphitheater stretching down to a tennis court would make an ideal setting for an outdoor performance space. Before I knew it, rumors abounded that Great River was going to take over the property and begin transporting hundreds of playgoers up the private lane leading to the estate for its summer season.) 

Basically it always came back to two things: the weather, and what we were capable of as a company. In retrospect I think there are two things I would change about the Great River Shakespeare Festival were I to do it all over again. One would be to find a way to take the Festival outdoors.  There’s something simply Pavlovian about Shakespeare-under-the-stars (although I would endeavor to make sure this didn’t become what I think of as “ballpark Shakespeare,” with people feeling too free to converse, get up and leave in the middle of a scene or an act, shout to their neighbors and not really pay attention to the play, which I’ve seen happen at a few outdoor summer Shakespeare theatres); and two, I’d make admission free. I’ve come to believe that performing outdoors and being free of charge would be the surest way to increase attendance — as long as we could ensure the quality of productions for which the Festival has become so well known.

Read other perspectives on this issue (click a name to read their response):

Aaron (GRSF Managing Director)

Melissa (GRSF Co-Associate Artistic Director)

Doug (GRSF Artistic Director)

Tarah Flanagan (GRSF Co-Associate Artistic Director)