Great River Shakespeare Festival

What I’ve Learned. . .

It’s impossible to summarize or write succinctly about what I have learned in my ten seasons as Producing Director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival.  Certainly, I have learned much about the plays I’ve directed: several repeats, a couple of first-timers; it’s Shakespeare, so I cannot help but have grown as an artist and craftsperson. But this experience has been about something much larger: the establishment of a new theatre company dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare where nothing of its kind had ever existed.  My work on any of these plays would not have been possible had it not been for the vision of city leaders in Winona, Minnesota, and the commitment of hundreds and hundreds of people who believed in the idea of the Festival.  In many ways we have made real the unlikeliest of dreams.

Our commitment at Great River is to the written and spoken word, with Shakespeare’s stories at the heart of all we do.  But as you can see from the photo galleries, we’re not a historically re-creative company: rather, we believe you can set the plays in any period – ancient to futuristic – as long as concept does not overwhelm or obscure story.  We want the neon arrows to point toward the playwright, not toward the director. We’re “text geeks” at Great River, which means we spend the first full week of rehearsals digging into the words with all the usual resources at hand: Variorums, glossaries, dictionaries, myriads of editions of the plays. Our passionate belief is that spoken clearly and specifically, Shakespeare can be understood by any 4th grader.  And we’ve got ample testimony supporting that belief.

Beyond the plays, we’re a festival.  Weekend concerts, guest speakers, conversations of all kinds, apprenticeships, internships, scholarly symposiums, education and community outreach programs. . .  in short, something for everyone, no matter what their background, age, experience, education, or income. The most rewarding part of the adventure has been to see the “Shakespeare light” go on in so many people’s eyes and to sense the pride of an entire community in helping launch this unexpected enterprise.  Given the economy, the natural biases and barriers that exist about Shakespeare, and the amount of sheer blood, sweat, and tears that has gone into the making of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, our first ten years have been one of the miracles of my life and my career.

Photo Gallery - Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photos: Alec Wild

“A dream of a festival.  Truly, as good as they come.”

“Utterly absorbing. What I saw at Winona was so rich that I wished I could see another performance of each.  I wanted instant replay of these nuanced narratives with their precise language, their sudden lightning-stroke revelations of personality, and their sinuous drive.”

     Peter Saccio

     Shakespeare Bulletin

“It made your heart sing to see how well a good production went over with the Winona audience.  They loved it.  They jumped to their feet...

“Barnes and his actors don’t settle for the lowest common denominator...

“the sort of detail that bodes well for any summer Shakespeare operation.  

“This year’s ensemble of actors features what Shakespeare used to call “a nice deep bench,” with union performers sharing the stage with distinctive non-union performers.  I was happy to have returned to Winona.”

     Michael Phillips

     Chicago Tribune

“ they’ve long said and shown, GRSF is a company not afraid to take risks.

Fortunately for the directors, and for audiences, the risk has paid off.”

     Kari Knutsen

     The Winona Daily News

Amazing.  An act of courage not to be believed.

     Ming Cho Lee

     Set Designer/Co-Chair, Yale University School of Theatre Design

     Opening weekend keynote speaker, GRSF Season One

“An artistically impressive debut season.  Shakespeare’s texts are emphasized over conceptual overhauls of his plays.”

     Damien Jacques

     Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“in the southeastern corner of the a few short years since the fest's debut in 2004, (Winona) turned a simple dream into a thriving event with nearly 10,000 visitors each year.”

     Minnesota City Pages

“The Great River Shakespeare Festival has done wonders in bringing a professional, summer theatre experience for residents and visitors of Winona over the past ten years.”

     Ed Huyck

     City Pages

“A river town tucked into the limestone bluffs of Minnesota’s southeast corner, Winona is a magnet for all sorts of outdoorsy types.  But when 5,000 tourists poured in last June and July, it wasn’t for the hiking trails or the five pound-crappie. It was for Shakespeare.

“The eight-year old Great River Shakespeare Festival has triggered an explosion of interest in recent years.  Aimed at the curious novice, the festival prides itself on mingling the literary joys of works like Othello and The Comedy of Errors with the approachable, shorts-and-sandals vibe of a Minnesota summer.  The plays themselves are performed on a pair of stages at Winona State.  But the festivities—live music, film screenings, chats with the actors, lectures from visiting scholars—spill out all over town.”

     Frank Bures

     Minnesota Monthly

“Winona's renewal started with the founding of the Great River Shakespeare Festival (, which runs from the end of June to the end of July and features Equity actors from New York and Los Angeles. The city has since added the new Minnesota Marine Art Museum (, with exhibits of folk art, historical river photographs, and a fine rotating collection of 19th-century maritime paintings by the likes of Winslow Homer. Winona also hosts the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in the summer and now has a wintertime Frozen River Film Festival.”

     “Drive's of a Lifetime,” National Geographic

“As always at the Great River festival, the acting is superb.”

     Tom Weber

     Rochester Post-Bulletin

“A theatre company willing to take risks...this isn't a company that will play it safe.  The bar was set high and early for the festival ever since the first season's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale.”

     Kari Knutsen

     The Winona Daily News

Upper gallery photos (l-r): Jonathan Gillard Daly (The Daly News); Rex Young, Kim Martin-Cotten (A Midsummer Night's Dream); Doug Scholz-Carlson (The Comedy of Errors); Chris Mixon (Love's Labor's Lost); Aya Cash (Much Ado About Nothing); David Graham Jones (As You Like It); Corey Allen (King Henry IV, Part One); Michael Fitzpatrick, Laura Coover (Romeo and Juliet); Evan Fuller (The Merchant of Venice)

Lower gallery photos, top (l. to r.): GRSF company members,1st table read, 2009 season; pre-performance Concerts/Grilling on the Green; former Minnesota state legislator Sharon Ropes (Winona County Historical Society "Chocolate, Shakespeare, and Champagne" benefit); photos 4, 5, & 6: pre-performance Concerts/Grilling on the Green attendees; Bryan Hunt, 2010 season Education Coordinator (Winona County Historical Society "Chocolate, Shakespeare, and Champagne" benefit); Peter Flick and Diane Stevens, Great River Collegium and Friends of Will Emeriti Volunteers; GRSF company members, 1st table read, 2009 season

Lower gallery photos, bottom (l. to r.): Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jack Forbes-Wilson, Christopher Gerson, Gale Childs Daly, Chris Mixon, Drew Lindamood, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Katie Butson, Tarah Flanagan, Toby Onmuwere, Shanara Gabrielle, Jeanne Oost, Stephanie Lambourn, Karen Fawcett, Andrew Carlson, Erik Paulson, Nicole Roddenburg, Michael Fitzpatrick