"To attend, or not to attend . . ."

That will be the question people will ask themselves in deciding whether or not to attend the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF), which will runs June 28 through Aug. 4. This year's plays are "King Henry V" and "Twelfth Night or What You Will."

The Lanesboro Public Library is enabling a few interested people to see the plays for free through a Southeastern Library Cooperative (SELCO) grant and funding from Minnesota's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Lauren Smith, the education coordinator for GRSF, visited the Lanesboro Community Center on Monday, June 24, to explain the library voucher program, preview the plays and discuss the process GRSF goes through to produce Shakespeare.

Each year since 2004, GRSF has been drawing Shakespeare fans and general play enthusiasts alike to the Performing Arts Center on the Winona State University campus. Professional actors perform two or three productions per season with another put on by the intern/apprentice company.

Smith said each production agrees with their mission, "to create dynamic, clearly spoken productions of Shakespeare's plays, which enrich people's lives." Smith went on to explain how GRSF meets that mission through its core values of respect, excellence, education, affordability and honesty, among several others.

These commitments to quality begin during the fall and winter months, when set and costume designs are drafted and then determined by the directors. Even during this process, the challenge of producing Shakespeare is evident, Smith explained.

"In today's plays there are many instructions in setting, but not so much in Shakespeare's," she said. In some cases, Shakespeare set his plays in fictitious places.

Challenges also present themselves in costume design. Smith said a person would rarely see Elizabethan-style clothing in a GRSF performance because they want the viewer to focus more on the words and less on what they see. In order to get a clear idea of the set, costumes and character movement, GRSF spends hours poring over the plays' text.

"Text work is what is most important to the company," shared Smith.

Understanding the text enables the actors to find out what is the plays' relevancy to today and tomorrow. Smith quoted GRSF's artistic director Paul Barnes who said, "Relevance with Shakespeare is a foregone conclusion."

Even though the plays were first written and performed in the 17th century, many of the themes can still relate to the present. These themes are discussed by the cast and crew through a week of rigorous text work, which kicks off earnest preparations for the season.

"Everyone sits around a table and asks, 'What do you know?' and 'What are you interested in?'" explained Smith. Each person brings piles of resources to help in the text analysis process. The eight-hour-a-day process helps the actors understand what they are saying in order to present the language more clearly.

Following that 48-hour week, the cast jumps into three weeks of rehearsal. This is the time, called blocking, when the actors figure out how to move, talk and present their character on stage. All blocking takes place in rehearsal rooms and not on the actual performance stage. Floor tape, makeshift props and other people are the only things the actors have to orient themselves. Lines are memorized during this time period as well.

While the actors put text to voice, the set is being constructed. Smith said Shakespeare wrote his plays much like a screen play, where settings change frequently.

"A big challenge is finding out how you transition from one scene to another," she remarked. "It's critical in order to understand the story and prevent boredom and confusion."

Based on the accepted design, scenery is built, which are the larger set pieces. Smaller, more moveable items called props are made or gathered. Costumes, lighting, and sound are also organized during this time. "All of this happens in a space that is not the stage," shared Smith, highlighting the organized chaos taking place.

Everything is put together during technical rehearsals which occur the week before opening day. "These are the longest days, but you start to see things come together from pieces," Smith stated. It is also the time when a director or actor may realize something isn't going to work as they had planned and changes take place.

Even on opening night, Smith said, not all the elements to GRSF's productions are in place because the audience is the last and most important part. Smith explained how they hope people laugh, gasp or cry in the places they want, but that isn't always how it pans out.

The cast and crew of GRSF will be presenting both a comedy in "Twelfth Night" and a history in "King Henry V." Smith gave a brief teaser of each play and focused on explaining the themes present in them.

"King Henry V" was written as a sequel to "King Henry IV" and continues telling the life of Prince Hal becoming a great English king. One theme very present in the play is that of war. Smith said Shakespeare gave both sides of the anti/pro war debate equal voices in the play, which allows the audience members to decide for themselves.

Another theme focuses on humans' fascination with the life stories of the famous. The play is set in medieval times, which is reflected by the costuming, but a viewer shouldn't be surprised to see actors dressed in street clothes during the beginning. This effect, Smith explained, was another text-based decision the director used to show the actors as literally going and putting on a play.

The comedy, "Twelfth Night," is set in the early 1900s during the Epiphany season following Christmas. The play contains themes on love in all its forms whether that be familial, love-hate or romantic. It is a play where several characters disguise themselves, which only leads to comedic confusion and mistaken identities.

Smith explained the audience will have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what is going on when the characters do not. The element of music will be used a lot, which fits with its most famous line, "If music be the food of love, play on . . ."

Having opened June 28, the GRSF will close Aug. 4. The library voucher program allows library patrons to check out a pair of free passes, pick the time and date of performance, and redeem the vouchers for tickets by contacting the GRSF office.

Smith said GRSF tries to make access to tickets as reasonably priced as possible. Through the library program, anyone can try out GRSF for themselves and see if their Shakespeare performances are worth paying for in the future.

Additional information about GRSF can be found at grsf.org.