Great River Guys: Life Long Learning

“My life and education both do learn me…”
-Othello

There is a very cool thing happening in the back room of the senior center in Winona each week, and I mean that place literally. I think it is called the Back Room, or Back Lounge or something like that.

Tucked away in the dark recesses of the Masonic Temple’s Senior Center, round a bend and down a hall, a group of like minded folks are gathering to discuss and debate and learn from each other. True they are lead by a learned individual, one of Winona’s true intellectual treasures, guiding their discussions and exchanges of ideas, often prodding and baiting them with just the right questions. But mostly they are there to explore and share with each other.

And though I was supposed to be off in meetings and raising money and helping make sure our fundraiser that night would go off without a hitch, I wanted to stop by and see what all the fuss was about. I had heard this year’s group was exceptional, that fascinating discoveries were being made and great ideas were being tossed around the room like hot potatoes from all sides. So I ducked in to see what all the noise was about.

Was this a planning commission? Were these folks gathered to solve the latest tax levy? Or how to actually navigate the labyrinth known as the MNsure website? No, young and old, retired and still leading newspapers and corporations, they were taking time out of their lives in sub zero temperatures to talk about Hamlet. Hamlet? A play? And an old fart of a play at that. By a writer who’s been dead for hundreds of years.

Did Ophelia really love him? And what about the Queen- she does marry awfully fast, does she love her son? And that politician Polonious. Is he not pompous and just puffing himself up to the king? Is he to be trusted? Is he not like countless politicians we know today?

And as I tasted the hunger in this Back Room to share possible answers to these questions I got a wonderful Vitamin b12 shot of exactly why I need to be out there raising money. Why all of us at Great River Shakespeare Festival work so hard all year long to bring these plays to life for 6 weeks in the summer. Why we go into the schools like we are this week to do the same thing with the high schools who will work in our student residency program on Julius Caesar. Why last Friday at our Valentine’s fundraiser with MMAM, the WSU Shakespeare Workshop, a volunteer ensemble of students for no credit, performed love scenes for over 220 people. Why we have expanded our SELCO library program this year adding 12 (correct these numbers for me) more libraries giving free tickets and scripts to a total of 20 from all over the region allowing access for all ages and means to experience and come to Winona to attend.

Because we all question and seek answers and what Shakespeare and the arts and even sometimes dang good dinner conversations do is make us wonder. And reach deep inside ourselves to reflect and laugh and get just that much better. Even if the getting better is realizing we will never know, just like our Aunt Judy or Ophelia, did she ever truly love that man of hers? Our if our own mother understood that withholding or giving too much love, like Queen Gertrude does- depending on your point of view, had a powerful effect on our own childhood. No wonder Hamlet is feeling a bit depressed. We can relate. Each of us, differently.

I listened to this wonderful round table of ideas and what struck me is the beauty of this Shakespeare Collegium (in its eigth year, thanks to Peter Flick, and there will be another in the spring on The Merry Wives of Windsor) was not that these folks were there to learn just what in the heck of a hell this dang play was actually about. Sure, these plays are hard to read and just to understand who is Rosencrantz and what is a Guildenstern is worth the price of admission. But that is not what these real life learners are leaving with. They are leaving with a better sense of self. Of honor, justice, love, respect, morality. Shakespeare is being dusted off and providing the doorway to stronger citizenship and relationships, and there is spirited discussion and passionate opinion being shared among a true cross section of Winona, with little bloodshed or loss of love. I know our donors and supporters sense that the GRSF festival is enriching Winona, but if they come over to the Senior Center and sit in that circle of chairs, they will be more sure of why. Not bad for a Back Room just off Main Street.

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