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A Storied Summer: Driftless Theatre

Heartbreak House, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren. / Courtesy American Players Theatre

Everybody loves a good story – from tall tales to fairy tales to ghost stories around the campfire to a stage full of actors, performing the scripts of Shakespeare (and others!). Stories transport us, remind us of our history – our joy and our sorrow – and bring us together for a fleeting bit of magic. Add to your summer story by checking out one – or all – of these fun theatres and story-telling events across the Driftless this year.


American Players Theatre – Spring Green, Wisconsin

The scene is set: You’ve got great friends, snacks, and a sense of anticipation along as you head off to the beautiful American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Get there early to enjoy your pre-show picnic and the ambiance of the outdoor amphitheater, with sounds of whippoorwills and cicada floating through the air. And then, find your spot – the show is about to begin.

American Players Theatre

Photos by Kelsi Wermuth / Courtesy APT

“Nature definitely plays an active role in our outdoor theater,” says Jess Amend, APT’s Marketing Content Manager, explaining the charm of the Hill Theatre, where the outdoor APT plays are staged. “Most of the performances start around dusk, so you get to watch the world transform as the play goes on. It’s really a full sensory experience – the breeze blows, and the stars and moon come out, and they’re the same stars and moon that Shakespeare’s plays have always been performed under.”

With a backdrop like this, it’s no wonder playgoers love APT. Not only it is a great excuse for a relaxing night out, but the elements of nature – like the occasional pigeon landing on stage – also ensure each experience will be unique. “It all adds dimension to the plays we produce here, and it’s a pretty spectacular way to spend an evening.”

American Players Theatre's outdoor amphitheater, Hill Theatre

Photo by Mike McDermott / Courtesy APT

The storytelling in this setting is what truly makes the Theatre a must-see Driftless destination. “APT’s mission includes digging into really dense, poetic language. And that can be hard – for the actors and the audience – if you don’t do it right,” Jess says. This is why APT has a dedicated voice and text department – one of the strongest in the country – that helps bring stories to life in ways many have never seen before. “We often have audience members tell us that they never understood Shakespeare until they saw it at APT,” says Jess. That, in combination with the chemistry and ease on stage of the actors, makes once-complicated, hard-to-interpret stories feel more digestible, Jess says. “People tell us these actors feel like family, and that’s a powerful thing, and a powerful element to add to any story.”

In addition to the newly renovated 1089-seat outdoor amphitheater, Hill Theatre, there’s the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. Mark your calendars to the APT 40th Anniversary party on July 21 featuring a first-ever arts installation.

American Players Theatre’s 2019 season’s plays (both indoor and out) are:

Twelfth Night and Macbeth, both by William Shakespeare

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

August Wilson’s Fences by August Wilson

The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson

The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw (indoors)

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur by Tennesee Williams (indoors)

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (indoors)

A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath (indoors)

See more info and buy tickets at americanplayers.org


Great River Shakespeare Festival – Winona, Minnesota

At the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) in Winona, Minnesota, they spend a lot of time investigating what is at the core of the story and the characters – translating the works of Shakespeare in new and exciting ways is both challenging and rewarding. “Things like jealousy, love, and ambition are timeless, and there are always new ways to examine how those things affect us,” says Eileen Moeller, GRSF Marketing and Sales Director. “Keeping productions relevant is very important to our company.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Dan Norman / Courtesy GRSF

This year’s production of Macbeth is a great example of how GRSF stays true to the core story and script, but also dips its toe into something new. Their website even suggests you should bring along a “Game of Thrones fan looking to take their fandom to another level” to enjoy the show. “Macbeth is a popular play because it’s dark and broody, but it also deals with ambition and power,” says Eileen. “It’s one that offers a lot to a lot of different people – famous lines for Shakespeare geeks and lots of swords and (fake) blood for those who like action.”

The stories, the costumes, and the set design are all top-notch at GRSF, but, like APT, it’s the atmosphere of community that keeps both audience and company coming back year after year. They’re expecting about 11,000 attendees for this year’s event. “If you’re not from town, you feel like you belong, and if you live in Winona, it’s like seeing old friends,” Eileen says. “For those of us in the company, it’s a combination of a family reunion and summer camp.”

“It’s a community,” she adds. “We want to tell stories together and discuss with our friends and neighbors what they mean for us, in this moment.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Dan Norman / Courtesy GRSF

This year’s Great River Shakespeare Festival – it’s 16th Season! – includes these plays:

Cymbeline

Macbeth

No Child…

The Servant of Two Masters

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

Love’s Labors Lost (Apprentice/Intern Production)

Mark your calendars: GRSF runs now through early August. New this year are two off-site performances at Forager Brewery in Rochester (July 11) and Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse (July 14). Learn more and buy tickets at grsf.org.

Noteworthy: There are many opportunities for kids to get involved in GRSF through classes, like Shakespeare for: Young Actors; Young Designers;  Young Filmmakers and more. Find details at grsf.org.


Commonweal Theatre – Lanesboro, Minnesota

Lanesboro, Minnesota, is a charming little town that packs a punch, with outstanding recreational activities, exquisite art experiences, and beautiful Victorian houses. And one of the big pieces at the heart of Lanesboro is the Commonweal Theatre, an intimate theater with 30 years of experience under its belt. Executive Director Hal Cropp works hard alongside staff and crew to ensure that playgoers have the same, enjoyable experience at their shows that they do in the surrounding community. The ensemble of folks at the Theatre rotate between different jobs – in addition to being actors on stage, they may also be ticket sellers one day, ticket takers the next, or work selling concessions another. This allows theatre-goers to interact with the company on a more personal, face-to-face level. “It works with both the intimacy of the theater itself and the unique style of the public spaces – all of which are a permanent art display,” Hal says. “And deepens the audience feeling that we are ‘their’ theater.” Passionate storytelling is at the core of the Commonweal company, and this is what brings attendees back for more.

2018 production of The Clean House at Commonweal Theatre

Colleen Barrett (left) and Fernanda Badeo in the 2018 production of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl. Photo by Peterson Creative Photography & Design / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre

Production selections start with “passion pieces” presented by members of the ensemble. “This generally yields a list of 40 or 50 titles, which then get sorted through for a number of variables: cast size, technical requirements, as well as how it fits against the other titles being offered,” Hal explains. “We are deeply cognizant of our mission to enrich the common good.” Even after 30 years, each production is a new experience at the Commonweal. The company is dedicated to the philosophy of making each person feel like the theatre is their home, and ultimately, feel connected to each story. “The satisfaction we derive from having people connect on so many levels is spiritually fulfilling, and therefore fun,” Hal says. “Passionate storytelling, executed on a highly professional level, touches everyone.”

Commonweal Theatre

Commonweal Theatre. Photo by Katrina Myrah / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre

Commonweal’s 2019 Season runs from April-December.

Current and upcoming shows include:

Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti (May 10-Aug 31)

Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice (July 12-Oct 26)

On the Verge by Eric Overmyer (Sept 6-Nov10)

Sanders Family Christmas by Connie Ray (Nov 15-Dec 22)

Find details and buy tickets at commonwealtheatre.org

Resident ensemble member and theatre patron at Commonweal Theatre

Brandt Roberts (left), resident ensemble member, and a theatre patron / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre


Looking for more storytelling fun?

La Crosse Storytelling Festival – La Crosse, Wisconsin

Love a good scary story? Then the La Crosse Storytelling Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is for you! This two-day event kicks off on a Friday night with a gentle first act, perfect for youngsters or the faint-of-heart. Then, the fear gets for real after intermission. “Humans have listened to scary tales for centuries as both cautionary tales and fun experiences. We hope to address the fun, but scary, experience,” says Professional Storyteller, Terry Visger. The festival ups the fun by serving witches brew with costume-clad emcees – appealing to young and old. “This has been a very popular event for children of all ages but, in the last two years, we have actually had more adults than children in attendance,” Terry says.

Day two brings tales of a tamer variety. Musicians, jugglers, and storytellers unite to provide an exciting family-friendly experience. “Storytelling is magical for children. It engages all of their brain and physical being. We choose musicians who know how to interact with children by making them part of the performance,” Terry says.

For adults, the talent and variety of internationally-known storytellers can’t be beat. “We strive for variety in style, content, and type of story. We believe our audiences should experience the best-of-the-best and that is why we bring tellers from many areas and backgrounds to La Crosse,” she says.

After 16 years of hosting this fun-filled weekend under tents, this year’s festival will leave the mosquitoes and unpredictable weather behind for a new location: The Pump House Regional Arts Center. “We will have great food and drink, a silent auction, and bookstore,” Terry says. “And, more importantly, wonderful entertainment for the weekend.”

Mark Your Calendars: La Crosse Storytelling Festival – July 19-20. Learn more at lacrossestoryfest.com.

History Alive – Lanesboro, Minnesota

Loving that Lanesboro, Minnesota vibe? Mark your calendars for History Alive Lanesboro, “Pop-up Plays: Founding Lanesboro 1869,” coming this fall, September 21, 22, 28, and 29 at 1 and 3 pm each day.

History Alive presents stories of Lanesboro… in the streets of Lanesboro. The one and a half-hour walking tours take you to different play locations around town. Tours begin at Sons of Norway, 200 Parkway Avenue South, Lanesboro. Tickets are for sale at the door.

2019’s traveling plays celebrate Lanesboro’s 150th anniversary. Meet some of the town’s first residents, railroad builders, stonemasons, fresh off-the-boat Irish and Norwegians, Chief Winneshiek, area abolitionists, even snake oil salesmen through this storytelling event!

Mark Your Calendars: History Alive Lanesboro – September 21, 22, 28, and 29. See facebook.com/historyalivelanesboro/ for details.

Driftless Day Trip: La Crosse, Wisconsin

River and sunset in La Crosse

Driftless Day Trip: La Crosse, Wisconsin
By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Winter 2011-12 Inspire(d) • Updated January 2016

Within the high ridges and narrow coulees of Western Wisconsin, a wide plain nestles up to the Mississippi River. First spotted by Native Americans and French fur traders, “Prairie La Crosse” (named so by Zebulon Pike in the early 1800s) is a fun, colorful river town to its core.

From the days of fur trading and timber to the brewing industry and today’s education and health care economy, La Crosse has been a regional hub for more than 150 years. It holds the only passenger rail access for 100+ miles in most directions, serves as a major transportation route for barge traffic and river enthusiasts, and it was even claimed, at one time, to host the “highest number of drinking establishments in a single-mile stretch of road” in the country. While 3rd Street still has its fair share of fun, this river town offers a lot more than that!

Mt. La Crosse Skii Resort

Photo courtesy Mt. La Crosse

La Crosse really is a four-season destination. With easy access to the Mississippi, several hiking and biking areas, and a variety of festivals, it’s not hard to get outdoors in the Coulee Region – even in the middle of winter. Downhill skiing and snowboarding destination Mt. La Crosse lights up its 18 slopes – including one of the Midwest’s steepest runs, “Damnation!” – and opens for the season as soon as enough snow flies (don’t miss the St. Bernard room for an après ski beverage!). Upper and Lower Hixon Park offer great opportunities to get out and take in the views as well, with hiking, snow shoe trails, mountain biking, and even a pump track at the Upper Hixon parking lot. And there is a ton of fun – no matter the season – waiting in La Crosse’s downtown district.

Plenty of local lodging options can put you right in the heart of things – The Radisson and it’s Three Rivers Lodge restaurant are perfect for walkable dining, shopping, drinking, and entertainment. Looking for something special? Check out the new Charmant Hotel just steps from Riverside Park and the Mississippi – it is amazing!

8CharmantRooftopBar

Styled to perfection, the Charmant is the epitome of luxury, but without being stuffy. We love it. The rooms are beautiful and efficiently designed, their check-in counter doubles as a colorful macaroon shop, and there are local goods in the mini-bar (even WiscoPop!). Grab a tasty Kickapoo Coffee and a croissant in the morning in the parlor, and head out on the town.

Charmant Coffee Bar, La Crosse

Charmant Parlor and Coffee Bar

One of the first places our family hits is a kid favorite: the La Crosse Children’s Museum. With a climbing wall and rotating children’s exhibits, the museum is sure to keep your kiddo busy for at least part of a day. Also check their calendar for ‘Night Out at the Museum’ evenings, usually offered once a month. Parents can drop their kids at the museum for a couple hours of structured play and then go out and enjoy a meal, shopping, or fun themselves – all for a very reasonable price.

Want to get really hands on? Go hands in…the clay! Generous Earth Pottery offers classes on the pottery wheel, and then you can head over to All Glazed Up (once your piece has dried) to paint it up! The friendly instruction and atmosphere is great for beginners and kids, as well as seasoned wheel throwers looking for studio time. Try the “Wheel Deal” to get started!

If you’re looking to bliss out, we’re also fans of the Iyengar yoga classes at The Yoga Place downtown – where Chris Saudek has been offering authentic instruction and practice since 1988. And what’s a date night without a dance? The Moonlight Dance Studio with Kellen and Kathy Burgos offer ongoing couples dance classes – 30+ years of instruction won’t get you off on the wrong foot.

With or without the kiddos, a stop at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor is hard to beat. This La Crosse landmark makes all of their ice cream on-site and also has a fantastic old time candy counter. (The homemade waffle cones dipped in chocolate and sprinkles are totally worth it!)

The Pearl Ice Cream La Crosse

Satisfy a sweet tooth at The Pearl.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with dessert – La Crosse has no shortage of great dining spots. Recent favorites include The Mint on State Street by UW La Crosse (farm-to-table rotating menu), the Charmant’s restaurant (French-inspired cuisine), Kate’s Pizza Amore (casual but classy pizza and more) The Waterfront (Upscale) The Breakfast Club and Pub (breakfast, tots, & John Hughes), and the Root Note (crepes) – to name just a few!

the Root Note La Crosse

Creperia by day, chill bar by night.

Four Sisters Wine Bar and Tapas near the river is also a fabulous place to enjoy the company of good friends (the flatbreads are great for sharing!), and they are also opening a second location on 4th Street which will include catering and a self serve wine bar! Speaking of 4th Street, Fayze’s is another perennial favorite with an easy, kid-friendly atmosphere and solid choices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a great bakery counter. And of course, you can’t forget the local, organic food mecca, the People’s Food Co-op. Order up something delicious at the deli inside, check out Hackberry’s upstairs for a tasty sit-down setting, or buy a nosh for a hotel picnic of your own.

Pheasant at The Mint in La Crosse

Pheasant at The Mint

Once you’ve filled your belly, La Crosse can, of course, still live up to its reputation – there’s plenty of 21+ fun to be had. Some of that may have stemmed from a beer culture long-fostered by the G. Heileman Brewing Company (famous for Old Style, amongst other beers), which called La Crosse home from 1858 to 1996. These days, you’ll find more craft-style beers in La Crosse (no offense, Old Style). Pearl Street Brewery has a taproom that is open most evenings and allows you to drink and talk hops. They’re located just northeast of downtown in the old La Crosse boot factory and worth searching out. (We love the Me, Myself, and IPA and the flagship Downtown Brown is an easy tipper.)

The newest hop on the block is Turtle Stack Brewery. Located right downtown, their micro-brewery highlights local hops and community-thinking. Try a seasonal tap and take in a sunset from their giant front windows!

And the really giant beers live at the Stein Haus – you could grab a (small or huge) stein, a brat, and if it’s nice out, a lounging chair on the patio. We love the chill atmosphere!

Turltle Stack Brewery La Crosse

Since you’re going out, you should probably catch some live music – there are plenty of excellent venues hosting great shows around town. We suggest you steer clear of the bigger neon-lit joints in favor for some of the smaller taverns. On 4th you’ll find The Bodega – a favorite spot to grab a great beer and a small show – and just across the street is one of La Crosse’s coolest spots, the Root Note (we mentioned their crepes earlier). Order one of their amazing taps or a pour of their select craft spirits and see what’s going on. They feature some of the regions best performers in an intimate setting. A few blocks over The Cavalier Theatre is bringing some great regional and national artists to the region. Support live music, friends! And amidst all that fun, make sure you swing by The Casino – it is neither a casino, nor does it usually have “Lousy Service” as the sign reads – but it has been there forever, and we love them for it.

15Casino

Feeling a little rough the next day? We would be remiss if we didn’t mention one of our favorite meals/salads/breakfasts/drinks: the Bloody Mary. La Crosse and many of its fine establishments have pretty much perfected it. Ride your bike up the La Crosse River State Trail to the Nutbush City Limits in Onalaska, grab a local favorite at Del’s or one of those meal-in-a-glass offerings at Fayze’s, or head up the bluff to Alpine Inn. If you’re hitting up the latter, make it an outing and trek out onto Grand Dad’s Bluff ­– the most recognizable landmark from any vantage around the city –to check out the view of lovely La Crosse below.

Speaking of biking, you might want to plan your La Crosse visit around the La Crosse Bicycle Festival (held each Labor Day Weekend) or one of the Beer By Bike Brigade (BBBB) outings. For a few years now, a skeleton crew of folks have been organizing monthly BBBB rides. They also host special off-season rides and fundraisers for great local causes. What’s not to love about beers, bikes, and like-minded camaraderie? Check the “Beer By Bikes Brigade La Crosse” Facebook page for meet-up details. There’s no registration, no fee, and lots of fun included. The only rule is that you have to be 21 to participate as the Brigade hops from establishment to establishment with stops between (and you gotta bring bike lights, of course!).

BeerByBikes2

Photo courtesy BBBB

It was through BBBB that we heard about La Crosse SOUP – and let us tell ‘ya – it’s seriously soup-er (c’mon, you gotta do it, people)! La Crosse SOUP is another monthly, community building event, but this one is about micro-granting! Community members come together to eat soup (and bread and dessert) in a designated location, celebrate the best of La Crosse, and provide funding to folks planning creative projects that will make La Crosse an even more awesome and fun place to be. The first project funded – a bicycle fix-it station where people can share tools to repair their bicycles – was built at Riverside Park with the help of the SOUP funds (funded May 2015). Cool!

While you’re at Riverside Park, go old school and pop over to check out the La Crosse Queen schedule. She’s a modern-day replica of the grand river boats that traveled the Mississippi in the late 19th century – one of the few authentic Mississippi River paddlewheel river boats still on operation in the US. And if you’re into paddleboats and river history, swing by the Riverside Museum as well.

 

The Mint Bartender La Crosse

Careful crafting at The Mint Bar

If your idea of fun doesn’t involve drinking, biking, boating, or kids museums, don’t despair: check out some of the coulee “culture” that’s so prevalent in La Crosse.

The Pump House Regional Arts Center features great exhibits and some of the best in folk and solo performers, while across the street at the new Webber Center you can catch shows from both the La Crosse Community Theatre as well as Viterbo University. The La Crosse Symphony can be heard several times throughout the year (including Decorah’s own Nori Hadley!), and The UW La Crosse Art Gallery is also worth a visit. Or if your idea of a good show is one on a screen, check out what’s playing at the Rivoli Theatre (would a beer and pizza during the movie trip your filmstrip? It does ours!)

Deaf Ear Records La Crosse

You’ll also find unique shopping from local merchants in downtown La Crosse. Kroner’s Hardware is truly an old fashioned gem with modern merchandise beyond the typical hardware store. Meanwhile just down the street and around the corner on 2nd Street you’ll find The Toy Shop – filled to the brim with fun stuff! The Deaf Ear record store on 4th is still a beacon of music, comics, tons of vinyl, and various sundries. Beyond downtown, you might (okay, definitely) want to hit the hugely-expanded Habitat for Humanity “Re-Store” in its new location on the outskirts of town. Inventory of used home and construction wares changes by the day and varies incredibly (Aryn loves it!).

And, finally, if you like a good festival, this river town will definitely like you! From Oktoberfest to Irishfest to the annual RiverFest, Great River Folk Festival, Labor Day weekend La Crosse Bicycle Festival, and the Rotary Lights holiday display alongside that great Mississippi River, truly celebrate the seasons in this amazing river town.

So drive up, down, or over and park the car. Historic downtown La Crosse is made for walking – besides, a little fresh air between juke-joints is perfect, and a bit of exercise is the perfect excuse to enjoy that late night slice at Polito’s.

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Benji Nichols has been digging around downtown La Crosse since he was a kid and loves to escape now and again to a handful of favorite haunts along the Mississippi River. He is thrilled to see La Crosse continue to re-invent itself.