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 nearly 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, a four-week tribute to the Bard that runs from late June through July, 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. (In 2008, organizers launched a “Grill with Will” event for Shakespeare skeptics, coaxing newbies with the promise of free bratwurst.) 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.
Some 10,500 tickets were sold in 2010, about half of them to people visiting from outside the area. The success brought Winona’s reputation as a blossoming arts haven—with a summer Beethoven festival, a winter indie-film fest, and a new riverside art museum—to full boil.
“We had a great year last year,” says Doug Scholz-Carlson, the festival’s associate producing director. “We increased our attendance by 50 percent, which is what we were hoping for. But when it actually happened, we were pretty stunned.”
The festival, launched in 2004, was modeled after other Shakespeare festivals like those in Oregon, Utah, and Ontario, which have become huge tourist draws, as well as linchpins in the local economies.
Tickets tend to evaporate by the festival’s last few weeks, so it’s best to secure your seats early. This year’s productions include King Henry IV, Part I, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, plus a 50th anniversary production of The Fantasticks—which Shakespeare didn’t write, but no doubt would have enjoyed.
MNMO‘s Guide to Winona
WHERE TO STAY
Windom Park Bed & Breakfast (369 W. Broadway St., 507-457-9515, windompark.com) or the AmericInn (60 Riverview Dr., 507-457-0249).
WHERE TO EAT
Try Bloedow’s Bakery (451 E. Broadway St., 507-452-3682) for the best donut you’ve ever had (a line forms before it opens). For lunch, sample the seasonal fare at the Blue Heron Coffee House (162 W. Second St., 507-452-7020, blueheroncoffeehouse.com). Fine dining can be found at Signatures (22852 County Rd. 17, 507-454-3767, signatureswinona.com).
WHAT TO DO
Tickets for the Great River Shakespeare Festival can be purchased online at grsf .org, or by calling 507-474-7900 (ext. 110). Productions run June 22 to July 31. While in town, visit the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (800 Riverview Dr., 507-474-6626, minnesotamarineart.org). And check out the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, which runs from June 26 to July 17 (mnbeethovenfestival.org, 507-457-1715).