By Susan T. Hessel  

If there’s anything Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival aims to prove, it’s that it is not just for the elite. “It’s a beer and brats Shakespearean festival, not a highfaluting festival,” said Eileen Moeller, Great River marketing and sales director. 

“Our mission is to do high-quality theatre that is easily understandable by everyone and that focuses on language and text. Our primary focus is high-quality Shakespeare and education,” she continued.

Now in its 16th season, the festival draws performers, directors and other staff from around the country. Some return each year, creating a combination of “family reunion and summer camp.” Some audience members come from states across the country, including Hawaii and Alaska.

Despite the headline quote coming from “Hamlet,” that play is not on the 2019 schedule. Instead, the plays are:

  • “Cymbeline,” a less-known Shakespeare play about betrayal and pride
  • “Macbeth,” a very well-known Shakespeare production
  • “The Servant of Two Masters,” an 18th century Italian play by Carlo Goldoni
  • “No Child…” by Nilaja Sun, based on the author’s teaching in New York 
  • “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” by Nassim Soleimanpour, in which an actor must perform a play whose script he or she has not seen before

The festival began in 2004 after Winona was chosen as a Midwest location. “The people in Winona campaigned really hard to get the festival,” Moeller said. “The community is very supportive. It’s a good fit.” Winona State University makes its theatre and housing facilities available.

Another emphasis is on education, with classes available for adults and children as young as four. Among the classes is one that began in 2018, called “Shakespeare for Young Filmmakers.” The 2018 final project film was shown at Winona’s Frozen River Film Festival in February. 

Other youth classes are Will’s Power Players, which has two different groups from age 4 through sixth grade; Shakespeare for Young Actors; Shakespeare for Young Designers; plus classes for college students and early career professionals. Adult classes include Road Scholars and Great River Collegium. 

Moeller said that in one high school class, a student so fully understood the character he portrayed that “I was almost in tears. This kid is so good and knew and understood the text. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”

The festival is committed to diversity on and off the stage. It has one of the few female-run scene shops in professional theatre; both its technical director and assistant technical director are women. “We believe you cannot create good art unless you are a good person,” Moeller said. “We work to get to a place where we have gender and racial equality. As a young woman working for this company, I’m really happy with what we are doing on that front.”

The festival wants performers and staff members to feel a part of and support the Winona community. They are encouraged to talk with audience members about their work, Moeller said. “Even though they live in other places, I really feel they have a home in Winona, even if it is only for a few months a year.”

The Great River Shakespeare Festival takes place between June 25 and August 4, now including select off-site performances at unconventional locations such as Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse. For more information, visit www.grsf.org.