The Great River Shakespeare Festival is the result of a conversation that took place on April 30, 2002 between Mark Ferraro-Hauck and Paul Barnes, two of the company’s three founding producing directors, at a restaurant on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hauck first broached the idea of establishing a summer Shakespeare festival somewhere in the state of Minnesota. It wasn’t long before the conversation expanded to include Alec Wild, whom Barnes met when they directed side-by-side projects of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale at the newly-established University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theatre BFA Actor Training Program.
Intrigued by the idea of leading a professional theater company dedicated to the plays of William Shakespeare, the three re-convened a few months later for an extended weekend of brainstorming at Barnes’s residence in Ashland, Oregon, home to America’s flagship Shakespeare theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By this time, the news that the trio was looking for a home base for their theater company had wafted down river to Winona, Minnesota, where city leaders seized upon the idea of a successful arts organization as a means of drawing visitors off Highway 61, and bringing them into town, where they could discover the numerous pleasures and attractions of Winona and also help stimulate the economy.
The rest is very fast-moving history. The trio visited Winona, met with city leaders, and toured potential performance venues in early September 2002. A little over five months after their initial conversation about starting a theater company, Barnes, Hauck, and Wild accepted the city’s invitation to call Winona home. A Board of Directors, led by former HBCI CEO Gary Evans was formed, and fund-raising began. In June, 2004, coinciding with the Mississippi River Grand Excursion celebration, the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Midwest’s newest and largest Equity theater, opened its doors.
Nearly fifteen seasons later, the Festival has brought theater artists from across the country to Winona and drawn a national audience to the Winona State University campus, where the Festival performs. Known for its text-based, language-driven work, GRSF hosts a variety of education programs throughout the year, and has inspired a platoon of community volunteers who step forward every season to perform a multitude of support functions, from serving on the Festival’s Board to transporting actors to and from airports, to preparing and hosting company meals during the intense pre-opening tech weeks.
Now solidly into its second decade of existence, Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival is an unique success story that came to life when three people dared to dream and then found a community that believed in the value of live theater as a way to make an already nice place to live and to visit even more attractive, and was willing to embrace, nurture, and support the vision of the company’s founders.
The Great River Shakespeare Festival, poised on the banks of the Mississippi River, is a true American Heartland story. Inspired by the words of Mark Twain (“Shakespeare wrote for the people. We’re the people; let’s listen . . .”), the Festival wholeheartedly believes that clearly spoken, dynamically realized productions of Shakespeare’s plays can be understood by anyone. To this day, the festival remains committed to that founding, guiding principle as well as to the passionate belief that Shakespeare speaks to the heart of the human experience unlike any other English speaking writer.
– Paul Barnes, October 2016