Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Festival is love’s labor found for theater professor

Shakespeare production

Jonathan Gillard Daly and Tara Flanagan starred in Great River’s 2009 production of The Tempest. Photo by: Courtesy of the Great River Shakespeare Festival,

For the first time since 2004, Rick Barbour won’t be spending the summer in Winona, Minn.

The chair of DU’s theater department will be overseeing the unit’s move from Margery Reed Hall to Johnson-McFarlane Hall, so he’ll be sticking around the Denver area. But the Great River Shakespeare Festival, which Barbour helped found, opened its seventh season in Winona June 23 with a slate that includes Othello and The Comedy of Errors.

“I can’t wait to go back,” Barbour says. “It’s a great place to be.”

Conceived at the University of Minnesota by theater teachers Paul Barnes, Alec Wild and Mark Hauck (Barbour and costume designer Rosemary Ingham were brought on board later), the nonprofit festival takes a text-based approach to Shakespeare’s works, focusing intently on the words of the Bard’s great plays.

“What really interested us was the core, the heart, the spine of the great stories he has to tell,” Barbour says. “We didn’t want to preemptively fool around with concept and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we did this one on the moon, or this one in the Wild West?’ for the sake of style. Our values are on the actor and the clarity of the text, on how accessible it is to the human heart and for the audience to have an emotional involvement with what’s on stage.”

The approach has been a success so far, he says, as the tiny town on the Mississippi River welcomes the festival back each summer with open arms. Citizens volunteer to do everything from taking tickets and handing out programs to feeding the cast and crew. While Great River draws attendees from as far away as Chicago and Minneapolis, Barbour says, its goal is to be Winona’s Shakespeare festival, first and foremost.

“We didn’t want to be some elitist carpetbaggers who come in every year to tell a little town what art is,” he says. “We really wanted to reflect some of the pulse in that community, and I think we’ve been pretty successful.”

Cast and crew members come from around the country to Winona each summer for four months of craft and camaraderie. They live in graduate student housing on the campus of Winona State University, which also is where the festival’s two theater spaces are housed. In addition to professional performers, the festival employs an apprentice company of young actors who train with and understudy the pros, then put on their own show once the season has opened. Barbour, who started off as Great River’s production designer, usually directs the apprentice company productions.

This year the Great River festival will present its first non-Shakespeare play: The Daly News, a musical memoir by resident actor Jonathan Gillard Daly, based on a weekly newsletter his grandfather sent to friends and family during World War II. Staging the show is an economic decision, Barbour says — people like musicals and are more likely to buy tickets to them — but it’s also part of the company’s mission to “have a different flavor in the mix.”

But at its core, Great River will remain a Shakespeare festival. Shakespeare was that rare playwright, Barbour says, who wrote works that can be presented over and over and still feel fresh and relevant.

“He wrote great stories. You talk about universal themes in any play you work on — what’s going on in the human soul. Issues of power, of revenge, of love, of lust, of family relationships — it all comes down to what it means to be human,” he says. “And Shakespeare wrote about what it means to be human better than anybody I know.”

Comments are closed.