It’s not often that a Shakespeare festival can stage a completely new play. Most of Shakespeare’s works, after all, are about 400 years old.
But this year, the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona is presenting a new musical alongside Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “Julius Caesar.”
The musical, “Georama,” looks at the life and work of artist John Banvard, who in the 1850s painted a moving, unfolding panorama of the Mississippi River and then faded into obscurity.
The play was workshopped by the Great River Festival a few years ago, and now the show is on the schedule for the festival’s 13th season, which opens this weekend.
“It’s always fun to try a new musical,” says Lee Gundersheimer, managing director of the festival. “It’s the perfect Southeast Minnesota show because of the Mississippi River tie-in.”
In recent seasons, the festival has had success with non-Shakespeare titles, including “The Glass Menagerie” and “The Fantasticks.”
“Georama,” though, is an unknown title to most theatergoers.
“It’s always a gamble,” notes Doug Scholz-Carlson, artistic director of the festival. “Part of the reason we do it is to attract new audiences. People who are uncertain about Shakespeare might want to try it. And it’s exciting for us to do a new work, especially something we had a hand in developing.”
There are also new actors at the festival this year, although familiar faces — Tarah Flanagan, Stephanie Lambourn, Michael Fitzpatrick — are returning as well. Audience favorites Christopher Gerson and Chris Mixon are working elsewhere this summer, but will return next year, Scholz-Carlson said.
“We want there to be new people coming into the company,” Scholz-Carlson says. “It inspires us to see new approaches to the work.”
Besides the plays, the festival this year will continue the tradition of free Concerts on the Green at 5 p.m. most Fridays and Saturdays, as well as pre-show conversations, narrated set changeovers, company conversations and Front Porch events, including a July 16 talk by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, a former presidential speech writer, on the role of language in politics.
There’s all that and Callithump, the variety show presented by cast members, which returns for two performances July 26.
It’s a lot to squeeze into six weeks, which has festival officials looking down the road — literally — for a way to extend the season.
“We’re trying to expand our program to create a show to take to three or four cities,” says Gundersheimer. “We hope that would then be an audience draw to Winona for the festival.”
Gundersheimer mentioned Rochester, La Crosse, Eau Claire and Red Wing as possible tour stops. But, he says, “It’s all in the forming and planning now. No contracts have been signed.”
In the meantime, the actors, directors and technicians are ready for another summer season below the bluffs in Winona, in front of what Scholz-Carlson called “intelligent” audiences. “They’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare at this point,” he says.