La Crosse Local

E.168: Melissa Maxwell | Great River Shakespeare Festival

Listen to “E.168: Melissa Maxwell | Great River Shakespeare Festival” on Spreaker.

We truly believe what we do is essential to the community, and we didn’t want to miss another year…bringing it back, in a way that is both safe for the community and the actors (on changes to the festival).

Today we talked with Melissa Maxwell, co-associate artistic director of Great River Shakespeare Festival. We talk about her intro into Shakespeare and acting, her path to the Festival, the obstacles of bringing the event back after covid, and what is next for the festival and her yourself.

Amy Gabay 00:05
Today we talked with Melissa Maxwell, Co-associate Artistic Director of Great River Shakespeare Festival. We talked about her intro into Shakespeare and acting, her path to the festival, the obstacles of bringing the event back after COVID, and what’s next for the festival and herself. You can find more conversations, food reviews, live music and events on our website, I’m Amy.

Brent Hanifl 00:30
And I’m Brent.

Amy Gabay 00:31
And this is La Crosse Local.

Melissa Maxwell 00:34
I’m Melissa Maxwell. I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, raised in Seekonk, Massachusetts. I feel I have to mention both. I guess like most people I first got into Shakespeare in school, learning it in high school. But then I went to Boston University to become an actor. And that’s when I really learned about Shakespeare and got immersed in it.

Brent Hanifl 00:59
What was your path to the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona?

Melissa Maxwell 01:02
I’ll give you the shortened version. In 2016, my partner of 31 years passed away. I had actually not been acting in over 10 years, I had been directing solely at that point. But you know, his death sort of cracked my life open in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. And I was just really focusing on leaning into life. And that strangely got me back on stage again. And so I have Tara Flanagan, Co-associate Artistic Director of the theater to thank. She and I share the position of Co-associate Artistic Director. But when she found out that I was back on stage again, she said, listen, we are looking to cast one more role, and I think you would be perfect for it. I had a 40 minute phone conversation with Doug in which I said, listen, you know, this is my first time on stage in over 10 years, and I’m still grieving the death of my partner. And I haven’t done Shakespeare in close to 20. And he said, I’m pretty sure you’re the one we want. And so in 2017, I found myself playing Queen Margaret. So, it was art imitating life. Anyone who doesn’t know Queen Margaret and Richard three, they killed her husband, they killed her son and she is grieving through the play. So and it was a very cathartic experience for me. It’s where I found an artistic community and a second home.

Brent Hanifl 02:30
Just kind of dealing with those difficult transitions that you had in your past life, as a co-artistic director of this festival, what was the process like bringing the event back? I’m sure there was a lot of big changes over this past year.

Melissa Maxwell 02:43
Everything about it is different. You know, we typically do not do outdoor theater. But for us, theater is not considered it’s you know, we’re not considered essential workers. But we truly believe that what we do is essential to the community. And we didn’t want to miss another year. So there were a lot of hurdles in terms of how do we bring it back to the community in a way that it’s both safe for the community and for the actors We had to deal with actors equity, which is the union that sets all the protocols that we have to go through in order to make it safe so that we can actually do theater. It’s probably the most expensive year that we’ve ever produced because we’ve had to build a stage from scratch. And we’ve had, you know, just the cost of adding in all of the things that we don’t normally have to do because we’re doing it outside. But we feel like kids at Christmas time just being able to be back here doing what we love to do and being able to engage with community

Brent Hanifl 03:51
You are going from you know, traditionally indoors in a perfect venue in some cases, and taking it outside. For me, watching live music recently and performances, I think outdoors adds an element to it that, you know, might be a little bit more inviting for people that it might be those first time people who have never been. What can people expect who maybe haven’t been to the festival before, or even those ones who were at the traditional sort of, you know, in the venues and things like that.

Melissa Maxwell 04:17
Well, that’s part of what is so exciting for us is that I think a lot of people when they hear Shakespeare, they get intimidated. They think, oh, I’m not gonna get it or it’s, you know, whatever, all the reasons that people have that block about Shakespeare. But, you know, being outdoors actually, I think is closer to what it was to do Shakespeare in its original form. That it you bring it to the community and you’re doing it in the elements and just you know, at bars or whatever. You know, it was that kind of thing where it wasn’t so pristine. So I’m really excited that being outdoors allows us to engage with people in a way that we probably have not done so before. And I think, listen, we were outdoors yesterday, and right behind us was Steamboat Days. So we were teching and we had our final dress with trains going by and people riding rides and eating fried cheese curds. And people would just stop and watch. And that’s the exciting part of it. And I think people will see that it’s more accessible than they thought Shakespeare was. That it’s a lot of fun. It’s family oriented. And so I’m looking forward to more of the Winona community discovering us who might have not previously ventured indoors to see what we were about.

Brent Hanifl 05:46
As you talked about in the beginning, you’re acting in The Tempest? How has that process been? Like, you know, especially with COVID. I know you said it’s been some time since you’ve acted, but also just throwing in the pandemic in the mix?

Melissa Maxwell 06:01
Well, you know, I think that doing it outdoors is the perfect place for this play. I think that this Winona weather has been like a tempest since we got here. The first few days we were here were gorgeous and then out of nowhere, it was suddenly 30 some odd degrees. And we were all outside. And most of us had not brought winter weather wear because we were starting two weeks later than we normally do. So, we had all of our clothes piled, you know, that we brought, piled on top of us as we were rehearsing outdoors. And then suddenly it was 96, 97 degrees, and it was sort of heatstroke adjacent as we were all trying to drink Gatorade. And then there are the winds. And so it’s been fascinating and fun to see, how does this play translate in natural elements?

Brent Hanifl 06:59
What’s next for the festival? I mean, are you guys already in the you know, it’s just beginning. You know, it’s running all the way through August 1st, it seems like packed days of just entertainment. What is next for the festival? Do you have anything identified that you’ve been looking at?

Melissa Maxwell 07:15
For this season, in addition to that, we have these events that we do, which we do every season. We have a Front Porch series, and that will be online this year. So anyone who wants to, they can go to, and find out what our Front Porch series is. But each week we bring you something different. Some of them are discussions, we have Judy Tate, who is a four time Emmy Award winning writer, she’ll be leading a class on writing. We have a reading of a play. So each Front Porch series is different. We also have Company Conversations, where people in the community will find out more about the company, you know, what is it to be an actor in the company. They can hear from our designers. So each of those are different. So they can either go to, and find out about it, or call 507-474-7900 and find out more information. And we of course are looking to the calendar year for next year. I’m not ready to announce that but that will be coming sometime later in the season.

Brent Hanifl 08:26
So basically, if people want to pick up tickets or find out more, they just head over to And it looks like it has events from free and up all the way through that early August.

Melissa Maxwell 08:38
Yes, exactly. And then again, the number of if they wanted to call is 507-474-7900

Amy Gabay 08:51
La Crosse l Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local. Find out more about us at And you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

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La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.

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