Ask an actor to sacrifice nine weeks of his time to perform three plays without knowing which roles he'll be given. Ask him to stay on his feet 15 hours a day, seven days a week, outdoors in the Texas summer heat with nothing but Gatorade and bug spray to comfort him. Ask him to sew his own costumes, write his own music, run his own light board, clean the theater himself, and share his living space with 15 other actors. And then ask him to pay you for his trouble. You'll probably get laughed at, if not punched in the nose. But ask a handful of enthusiastic, inexperienced Shakespeare buffs the same question, and you'll get yourself a Winedaler.
Technically the Winedale Historical Center, just outside Round Top is an entity of its own — a division of the Center for American History, with 19th-century structures situated on 225 acres of gorgeous Texas countryside. However, for most Austinites, the property is inextricably associated with Shakespeare at Winedale, the Shakespeare through performance program of the University of Texas' English Department, which overtakes the grounds for a few months each year.
You might call me a second-generation Winedaler. Not because my parents had anything to do with the program. Four years ago I knew nothing of Texas, let alone the hay barn-cum-theater that would soon change my life. No, I'm second-generation because in 2008, as a first-year graduate student who didn't know what she was getting herself into, I studied under the program's second (and current) director, James Loehlin, a professor of English at UT.
Loehlin, in turn, was a student under the program's first (and founding) director: the legendary James Ayres, known to most simply as "Doc." Except Loehlin was a student the year I was born, and by that time Ayres had already been directing the program for more than a decade.
This year, Shakespeare at Winedale celebrates its 40th anniversary and its 10th year with Loehlin at the helm. This summer's class performs "Twelfth Night," "Macbeth" and, as rumor has it, the first production in Texas of "Henry VI, Part I."
The students perform Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinee performances on the weekends, starting at 2 p.m. — no small feat when you consider this entails running around in heavy, student-sewn Renaissance costumes during the heat of the day.
As part of the reunion-year festivities, Loehlin has embarked on an unprecedented and audacious scheme — pre-show performances by former students of scenes from every one of Shakespeare's plays over the course of the season. In addition, Ayres and 21 alumni, spanning all four decades, will return to the Winedale grounds for one week in August to re-live the glory days, preparing for an Aug. 14 performance of a series of scenes.
It's been called Shakespeare Boot Camp by the alumni and a cult by others, but Winedale fosters an intense sense of community among those crazy enough to try. Maybe it's the magic of the pastoral setting or the time warp of the buildings, but it's not only the students who keep coming back. Year after year, audiences drive 80 miles or more to sit in an outdoor theater in the middle of summer to watch a group of kids perform Shakespeare, donating their time and money and enthusiasm.
Ayres, now a professor emeritus, began the program in 1970 in an effort to teach students a textual approach to performance. Adamantly anti-theatrical, Ayres says he would sometimes just cast his plays alphabetically and see what happened. He set out to challenge his students as a means to help them grow, and grow they have — into a Tony award-winning director (John Rando), author and co-founder of Esther's Follies (Terry Galloway), several Austin theater critics and innumerable producers of some of the best theater in town. But most Winedalers don't come from a theatrical background, even if they end up devoting their lives to the stage.
At Winedale, the goal is to explore the possibilities of the written word in action, not to perfect a piece of theater. There are no rehearsals, only performances; there are no scripts, only the text. Which isn't to say you won't see a great performance, because that barn has borne witness to some truly spectacular stunts.
Yet, where other directors start with the spectacle and work backward — treating Shakespeare like an opera or something fundamentally incomprehensible — the ensemble at Winedale begins with the premise that a breakdown in comprehension is a failure on the performer's part, not the audience's.
During the four weekends of open performances, you'll never quite see the same play twice, but you'll always understand it. The plays continue to evolve as the students learn more about the texts and about themselves.
As I've spoken with many former students and both directors during the past few weeks, one word has come up over and over again: transformative. Winedale teaches that in theater and in life, it's worth chasing things to the edge of capability. The gags that can wreak havoc on a scene if they go wrong are par for the course at Winedale. You'll see cups and cakes flying through the air, students leaping from support beams and balconies. The barn is a space of camaraderie and community, where the unexpected is inevitable and a sense of adventure is in the air.
Through the years, Shakespeare at Winedale has grown from a humble hay loft, to a reproduction Renaissance stage housing an international program infused with history and tradition, parable and paradox, faeries and fire ants ... at times fraught with peril and forever filled with the eternal spirit of play. Students gleefully fend off dehydration, heat exhaustion, snakes and spiders, thunder and lightning, performing with broken bones, dislocated shoulders, stitches and splints — because at Winedale the performance must go on, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of James Ayres and the title of University of Texas English professor James Loehlin.