Doug Scholz-Carlson was appointed Artistic Director of the Great River Shakespeare Company in 2013, and he is part of a new generational wave of new Artistic Directors. Among the many things that set him apart is the fact that his work is done well outside the Twin Cities metro area in Winona, Minnesota. Also, the majority of the plays he works on were written by a certain playwright who you may have heard of who is also long dead. So how has being outside the limelight of Minneapolis/St. Paul and working in a long established tradition of classical work combined with his fresh sensibilities? Doug and I chatted one morning last week before a long day of rehearsal, one of the things he cherishes most about his artistic home.
What is your history with the company?
I’ve actually been with the company from the beginning, all 12 years. I was part of the acting company 12 years ago, then I started choreographing fights the second season when we did Richard III. And the third or fourth season I directed one of the shows.
The company was founded by three guys: Paul Barnes, Alec Wild and Mark Hauk. Mark left after two seasons and Alec left after about six seasons, Paul is still here. When the original founders were here they were doing everything. Mark was probably more in charge of the administrative side and Paul and Alec would direct shows. Mark was also the original designer. The company grew from there and once Mark left they realized they needed someone who was in Minnesota doing administrative work for the festival. So I started doing some of that work and then was Associate Producing Director for a while and I’ve been Artistic Director for the last couple of years.
Did being a member of this company spur your growth into these areas or had you already started on that path?
It was a direction my career had been going but Great River really facilitated that. The company has a history of moving people through in that way. There’s a huge educational component to the Festival that’s been there from the beginning.
We have an apprentice actor training program that does training for young actors; we get people out of graduate programs and conservatory programs. A lot of those people have moved in to being intern actors in the professional company. This year we had our first actor who’s made the full journey from apprentice to intern to full company member to Equity company member. Our Props Master right now is a young woman who came to us as a student and is now in that position and is also one of the most sought after props artisans in Milwaukee. Brian Frederick, our first Managing Director, came to us as an apprentice actor and worked in the acting company, then became our development director, and now he’s Managing Director of the House Theater [in Chicago]. So there are all kinds of people who have progressed through the company.
When I directed Macbeth in, I think, season four, that was a big step forward for my directing career. I had been assistant directing a lot in opera, but not yet directing. I’d been directing theater for smaller theaters and high schools, but the job at Great River was a big jump forward. And the same is true of being named Artistic Director; it has fueled my career in other places. You get a certain kind of credibility from other theaters being the Artistic Director somewhere. They think you know what you’re doing!
Who do you identify as your audience?
Our audience is broken down into approximately thirds. A third of our audience is within ten miles, right in Winona. Then a third of the audience is between 10 and 60 miles away – Rochester, LaCrosse, Wabasha, Red Wing, Lake City. The final third comes from further than 60 miles away. We have strong attendance from Minneapolis, Chicago and Milwaukee. Less so from Iowa though that’s starting to grow. And it’s that third that’s from 60 miles or more that is growing the fastest.
We’re happy that here in Winona, a town of 25,000, we’ve got 3,000 to 4,000 of them buying tickets.
It’s impressive that two thirds of the audience of a Shakespeare festival is coming from a 60 mile radius in southeastern Minnesota.
It’s a really interesting region that is starting to grow. We take a lot of credit for it at Great River Shakespeare, because we were the first major arts organization here, but the truth is there’s a long tradition. We have a couple of banks down here that were built at the turn of the century with Tiffany windows in them, there’s beautiful architecture. In the opera house, the Barrymores played and Sarah Bernhardt played, so there is a long tradition.
Since Great River was founded twelve years ago, the Marine Art Museum opened and they have a Monet, a Picasso, and they just keep on expanding. There’s also the Beethoven Festival which brought in Yo Yo Ma to play a couple of years ago, Joshua Bell played. And then there’s small theaters like Commonweal over in Lanesboro which has been going for a long time; art galleries; pottery studios; a bluegrass festival; Midwest Music Fest for popular music. It’s a three day music festival that brings in several thousand people and couple hundred acts that play all over Winona.
It’s a funny region. I grew up in Northfield and I don’t think of Southeast Minnesota as a place that’s really vibrant with the arts, but it really has become that. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now.
With your job at Great River are you able to freelance? And if so, what does that do for you as an artist?
I work in opera an awful lot, so more and more of my career is there, and there are a lot of parallels between working in opera and working on Shakespeare. The scale of the emotion, the convention of it – because it’s all set to music and in a foreign language – and there are elements of that that are interesting to compare to Shakespeare. I mean Shakespeare is more approachable, because you can just listen to it and understand it, whereas in opera you have to read the supertitles to get what’s going on. But the parallels in storytelling are interesting. I learn a lot from Shakespeare that I can bring to the opera world in terms of getting the story told clearly, and then I learn a lot in the opera world in terms of scale of production, size of emotion and the kinds of gestures you can make onstage and bring that back to the Shakespeare.
But purely in terms of running a theater company, as a freelancer you are in many different theaters. I often think that if there were other industries where someone trying to run a company could work three weeks in this company and three weeks in that company… I mean you just find out what people are doing that’s working and you bring it all back! What we do is collaborative by nature and most artistic directors actually do work in other theaters. It’s a full time job but I’m paid about a half-time salary, so it’s in part a financial necessity.
How would you say your relationship to Shakespeare has changed over time?
The first company I started was in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Shakespeare Project with David Mann and Diane Mountford. There we were focused on 90 minute productions that we could take into schools. We really wanted to open that door for students. It was a great way for me to learn about Shakespeare. His plays were written for a popular audience, for the groundlings as well as the nobles, and I think in most regional theaters we tip toward just playing for the nobles. We assume that our audience is educated and familiar with the work and already know that they like it. But starting with productions that were aimed squarely at the groundlings was an interesting place to start. What I’ve learned as I’ve moved to Great River is how to fold that in to productions that are a little bit longer, really appreciating the nuance that’s in the language, really appreciating what it is to have great actors and enough rehearsal time to fully explore the text.
With the shorter productions I learned that the stories are really energetic and there’s a strong gesture all the way through, there’s a lot of action and excitement. When you get to explore them in depth, you discover that in every play, there’s a whole world there. All of these small characters, line-wise, tend to be fully fleshed out, and you have entire communities that evolve around the story.
So the journey is really about realizing how much there is there, how much of a world exists to be explored.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Because I spent so much of my career as an actor I got to appreciate how much the director sets the tone for what the room is going to be like. It sets up how people are going to explore and the kinds of questions they ask and how free they feel to make mistakes. What I loved about directing when I started was how much responsibility I had for how that temperature gets set and how people are going to work. And the thing I love about being Artistic Director is that you get to do that on the next level up. What’s the spirit going to be and how are people going to collaborate? In theater so much of it comes down to who you put in the room, what are they going to do?
So on the other side of that coin, is there a duty that you would delegate forever if you could?
Probably answering all the email.
During the summer I have an assistant, so I actually can delegate that, and it makes me much happier. Because you want to be involved and know what’s going on at a detailed level in the company, but then it’s just too much information. You want to give people space to do their thing, but you want to know what thing they’re doing, so when that one thing comes up that doesn’t feel right, you can jump in and get involved. But it means a lot of email.
The typical answer is the fundraising side of things, but I really enjoy talking to patrons. I love the fact that as Artistic Director I have a lot of contact with the people who are actually watching the theater. Including people who are not passionate about it who you are trying to encourage to be passionate about it, and then people who absolutely love what you do and want to talk.
As a new person at the top, what are the things you want to hold on to in the Festival, and what are some new things you to explore?
With theater, one of the things I always talk about is that its advantage over things like movies is that everyone is in the same room together. And things need to happen in the theater that can only happen in the theater. With the evolution of technology we are losing the places where we all have the same experience at the same time. There was a time in small towns in Minnesota where everyone went to church together, you had that experience every week. Even when I was growing up, when The Wizard of Oz came on TV everyone watched it and talked about it. Nowadays, the only day when you can have a conversation with anybody is maybe the day after the Super Bowl. Or the day after the election, though it’s got so dangerous to talk about that, you have to be careful!
But there’s not shared experience. The theater is one place where people come together and have that. I think professional sports grosses so much because people crave being in the same space with the same thing happening at the same time. The difference in theater is that we get to talk about the things that really matter to us. And we get to talk at length.
So when you go in to see Romeo and Juliet, everyone’s going to come out and talk about when they first fell in love or their parents or how they parent their kids, all of these powerful conversations. And everyone has this experience at the same time which is different than watching it on Netflix. You may talk about that with people but you experience seeing it was private, you didn’t have that visceral experience at the same time.
That’s probably the biggest thing to hold on to.
The new direction is how do you get people to understand that that’s what the experience is going to be? I know for myself, when I spend a lot of time on my phone, going back and forth between emails and other things, how unfocused I am. It’s hard to pay attention to something and we actually spend a lot of time training ourselves not to pay attention.
The theater is one of those places where you need to put everything else aside and pay attention to one thing which is a great thing and an enjoyable state to be in. But if you don’t know what that state is, if you’ve never experienced it… I worry that people who have grown up with that thing in their hands never actually know what it is to be focused.
If you could change one thing about the way theater works now, what would it be?
I wish we could take money out of the equation in terms of getting the audience in. I wish we didn’t have to charge as much as we charge for tickets. I think Mixed Blood is really on it in terms of inviting people in to see the play. I think if we could get ourselves to again be something everyone came to, the theater world would be a completely different place.