WINONA — Doug Scholz-Carlson has noticed something different about the audience these days when he looks out from the stage of the Great River Shakespeare Festival: It’s younger than it used to be.
“When you first start out, you expect the English professors to be there,” said Scholz-Carlson, who has been with the festival, now in its 11th season, from the beginning. “But the audience gets steadily more diverse as we’re doing it. As more and more people give it a try, they find they like it. Every year, we get a little more diverse and younger, and that’s a good thing.”
This year’s festival, which opens Friday and runs through Aug. 3, offers three productions: “Hamlet,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
Young people who are seeing “Hamlet” for the first time might have the same reaction as others who have come into contact with the play over the centuries.
“Each new generation that comes along says, ‘Oh, that’s my play,'” Scholz-Carlson said. “‘Hamlet,’ more than any other play, people feel they own. It’s so universal. When you see the play, it’s as if it’s speaking directly to you. You can’t imagine anyone else is feeling the same thing.”
To encourage young people to attend, the festival is again offering “Chill With Will” performances on July 4 and July 17 at which admission is free for ages 11 to 17. In addition, tickets for students are $10 at all times.
Scholz-Carlson is in his first season as overall artistic director of the festival. He’s the public face of the festival, conducting workshops, talking to organizations and attending fundraisers throughout the region.
And, he added, “I’m still an actor in the company, still on stage, still memorizing lines.”
This year, the entire acting company has more lines to memorize. The festival is back to producing three plays this summer, after cutting back to two plays for 2013.
“It’s going to be worth it for the audience,” Scholz-Carlson said. “They get that bigger experience of a festival.”
Three plays means more opportunities to attend the Friday-Saturday pre-show concerts, as well as the other activities associated with the festival.
Meanwhile, the addition of a third play gives the theater company a chance to break out of the mold of Shakespeare. “That third show is a place where you can take a little more of a chance,” Scholz-Carlson said.
In the case of this season’s third offering, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” the play is directly connected to “Hamlet,” in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are secondary characters. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” shows what happens to them when they’re not on stage in “Hamlet.”
It’s a clever derivation of a major Shakespearean work, and one that should reward attentive audience members, Scholz-Carlson said.
“If you watch ‘Hamlet’ first, and then go to ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,’ you’ll hear so many references to ‘Hamlet.'” Scholz-Carlson said.
In any order, though, attendance will help determine the future of an expanded festival. “Clearly, the three-show model is a model we’d like in the future,” Scholz-Carlson said.