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For half a century, Texans have studied Shakespeare by performing his plays in a barn

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
James Ayres, 89, a University of Texas emeritus professor of English, has been teaching Shakespeare through performance in a Texas barn for decades. Shakespeare at Winedale was founded in 1970; Camp Shakespeare for younger students in 2000.

The teacher leans into the circle of youths who are seated cross-legged on the floor. Solidly built like a sports coach, he speaks softly but intensely.

"All right, we want you, when you get up on that stage, to read your part," says the neatly dressed man who is some eight times older than his rapt listeners. "We want to hear where you are right now on these lines. We want to take you beyond that. You are going to grow as you work together. If you don't work together, you are not saying 'yes.' Each one of you has a special gift, and we're going to explore that."

The middle school students gather in a rustic barn at the Winedale Historical Center, located in a Texas hamlet 80 miles east of Austin.

The teacher is James "Doc" Ayres, now 89, who founded Shakespeare at Winedale for University of Texas students in 1970, then Camp Shakespeare for younger students in 2000.

Both programs are based on Ayres' firm conclusion that the best way to study Shakespeare's plays is to perform them.

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The dual Shakespeare ventures would have celebrated major matching anniversaries at Winedale in 2020, but the pandemic intervened. This year, they return to what is sometimes called the "Theatre Barn" to rehearse and perform. In a matter of weeks, the college students will collaborate on three Shakespeare plays; the younger performers, two.

For the alumni of the two legendary programs, the whole experience takes on a mystical feeling.

"The No. 1 thing was the location: The barn itself. That was the No. 1 thing that got me excited about going to Winedale," says John Rando, Tony Award-winning director and part of Winedale classes 1979-83. "The second thing was Shakespeare. And just studying Shakespeare in this intense, brilliant way, and around the clock, 7 a.m. to midnight. There was this wonderful, smart man who knew how to teach with such gusto and love of the text."

Rando's animated testimony can be witnessed on Kristi Frazier's illuminating feature-length documentary about Shakespeare at Winedale and Camp Shakespeare, "Take Pains. Be Perfect," which premiered at the Santa Fe Film Festival in February and on Austin PBS in April. It is available for streaming on the PBS website. 

"Shakespeare at Winedale is a class on life, really, rooted in the English language," Rando says. "This is not a typical classroom. We are not sitting at a desk, and we're not reading and then discussing the literature. 

"We are the literature. We have to inhabit and embody what the literature is."

Since 1970, college students have learned Shakespeare by performing his plays in a rustic Central Texas barn. Younger students have done the same through Camp Shakespeare, started in 2000. While immersing themselves in the words, they bond with the stories and their fellow players.

Meet James 'Doc' Ayres

"I was born on a train from Kansas City to San Antonio," Ayres says proudly before lunch at a Bastrop hotel in May. "The old MKT line."

By the time that Ayres turned 6, his father had left the family. His mother, Augustine Ayres, a nurse, became a single mother of five children.

For a time, she was the private nurse to Marion Koogler McNay, a painter, art collector and art teacher, who had inherited an oil fortune and whose home now serves as the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. 

"I went to Alamo Heights schools from kindergarten to 12th grade and graduated in the first class at the new Alamo Heights High School," Ayres says.

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All his life, Ayres liked to work. After all, everyone in the family pitched in.

"My mother worked every day," he says. "I took a job at Handy Andy No. 12 on Broadway when I was 12 and learned every part of the store — sacker, checker, produce, stocker. There was a team of us — we all played on the same baseball team — and we knew we were valuable to the store. That gave us some freedom."

Oddly for a man who has spent a long and distinguished career teaching literature, Ayres doesn't remember reading much in childhood. His mother kept 10 or 12 volumes of Reader's Digest abridged collections. 

At age 13, he picked up a six-volume Yale edition of Shakespeare that he found in the house.

"My first play was 'Twelfth Night.' I read it over and over," he says. "When Laurence Olivier's 'Hamlet' came to the Aztec Theater downtown, I must have seen it six or eight times. So when it came up in English class, I could contribute to the discussion."

After high school in 1953, he was drafted into the Army and served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit. Ayres felt that military service straightened him out and gave him direction. In the camp's choir, he worked on Broadway musicals.

Out of the Army on the G.I. Bill, Ayres studied English and history at Baylor University, Florida State University and Ohio State University, where he earned his doctorate in English. All the while, he worked — as a short order cook, gravedigger, travel agent, land surveyor, and beach boy at the Los Gatos Boys Home in California.

Camp Shakespeare, run by Robin Grace Soto under the guidance of James Ayres, gives middle school students a shot at grasping and performing Shakespeare before they get to high school.

The bard on the Forty Acres

In 1964, Ayres — known to many students ever since as "Doc" — arrived at UT to teach freshman and sophomore English to classes of 500 students in the Business Building.

"It was terrible," he says. "I felt out of touch with the students."

He volunteered for courses that other professors avoided and soon was appointed to teach honors classes. 

"The Merchant of Venice" was the very first Shakespeare work to receive the Ayres treatment.

"The class erupted with different observations," Ayres recalls. The play concerns a Christian merchant who defaults on a loan from a Jewish moneylender, which leads to a dramatic trial. "It's his most controversial play. In the end, I don't think it's an antisemitic play, but it contains antisemitic characters."

The class experimented in ways to shade one scene. 

"The students really blossomed," Ayres says. "I decided to use this intimate teaching experience in all my Shakespeare courses."

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He next moved the scene work outside to various environments around campus that matched the scenes. 

"I remember we did the graveyard scene from 'Hamlet,' and it was very cold that day," he says. "It attracted attention."

To the passing students, his outdoor scenes would have appeared like the contemporaneous "happenings" that sprang up outdoors spontaneously during the 1960s, a time of excitement on campus Ayres felt.

Eventually, Ayres staged "Hamlet" in the state Capitol Rotunda as various legislators looked on.

College students study and perform three plays, almost all of them by Shakespeare, in the Theatre Barn each summer. In 1997, Andrew Bond played Richard II; Mark Awad stands behind him.

Shakespeare in a barn

In 1970, Ayres received an invitation to a party for the retiring president of the Hogg Foundation, one of the state's leading family trusts and one with strong ties to UT. It was held outdoors at Winedale, a Central Texas spot (population: 4) near Round Top where regal philanthropist Ima Hogg had gathered a cluster of historic structures, including a barn with wooden support struts.

"It was difficult to find," remembers Ayres, who was UT's dean of students at the time, about the 215-acre site on a farm to market road. "Ima Hogg was in the receiving line, and she asked me, 'What do you teach?' When I told her, she said: 'Go into that barn and look at it.' When I came out, I told her that it reminded me of Shakespeare's Globe. She said: 'I'd like you to do Shakespeare there.'"

A month later, one of the most intriguing experiments in performance and Shakespeare, not only in Texas but in the country, began.

"I was in the right place at the right time," Ayres told Frazier in the documentary film. "That changed my life."

At first, Ayres gathered his English students for scenes from "Much Ado About Nothing" on one weekend. By the spring of 1971, his class was studying an entire play on weekends at Winedale, concluding the term with a public performance.

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"Students learned so much about the play," Ayres says. "It was a remarkable experience happening right before your eyes instantaneously."

The summer part of the course stretched out to 10 days. At the barn, which could get incredibly hot despite helpful fans and had few distractions, students talked about Shakespeare for a couple of days, then selected a play to perform.

"It lasted all day and into the night," Ayres says. "Sometimes to 1 a.m. in the morning."

It was not long before they started to publicize the performances with posters on beer trucks and bread trucks that circulated in the nearby towns. 

"We had a full house for our first play," Ayres says of the 350-seat venue. "The students wore makeshift costumes. It was all astonishing.

"When the audience arrived, they moved around the folding chairs that we had set out for them. The students didn't know where to perform. I gathered them backstage and just said: 'Go out there and wing it.'"

The season grew to three plays performed in repertoire each summer. Shakespeare at Winedale became a phenomenon. Audiences arrived with picnic baskets from Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Bryan-College Station. They shopped or snacked in nearby Round Top, home to a large, periodic antique market, as well the Round Top Music Festival and Institute. 

"It's really an earthy kind of theater, very robust, a lot of energy," Ayres told the American-Statesman in 1993. "Our audiences range in age from one end to another, and children love it. It tends to be a little noisy. We feel that people should be free to get up, go for a drink, go to the bathroom, whatever they want, and come back to their seats."

It should be said that the program has never been meant as professional theater training, but rather as a method of experiencing the richness of Elizabethan dramatic literature.

"I think the program has been such a great success because of our ensemble approach," Ayres told the Statesman in 1989. "It co-mingles scholarship with theatrical practice. The kind of responsibilities passed on to the students become quite valuable to their understanding of the plays. What emerges is a very committed group of actors."

In some ways, Camp Shakespeare is like any other summer camp. Only at Winedale, the kids study Shakespeare's plays as intensely as a scholar, then perform them.

Winedale alumni remember

For the students, despite — or perhaps because of — the grueling hours, it becomes an ecstatic experience, one that they do not forget.

"The program Doc created involves so much more than learning lines and staging plays," says Robert Faires, former Austin Chronicle arts editor and a Winedale alumnus. "It's taking care of the old hay barn where we rehearse and perform. It's filling coolers with water and sports drinks so we all stay hydrated in the brutal summer heat. It's making costumes and learning to listen to people onstage and improvise."

"And it's finding a way to make the play work as a group," Faires continues, "because Doc doesn't direct the plays so much as point the class in a direction, and it's up to us to work out on our own where it goes."

Lana Lesley, now a leader of Austin's collaborative Rude Mechs, told the Statesman in 1993 that Winedale is a place to figure out who you are and how strong you can be.

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"You learn how to deal with disagreements and how to work in a group situation and to perform the play," she says. "That you can come out here and perform Shakespeare, out here in the country, in Texas, is amazing to me."

For Clayton Stromberger, a teacher who now serves as Winedale's outreach coordinator, the experience was the challenge of a lifetime. 

"I was asked to think for myself, to invent, to improvise, to speak honestly in my voice, to bring my own soul to encounter a Shakespearean character's persona," Stromberger wrote in an article for the Statesman in 1999 about being a school teacher. "The first few days, I was terrified. I looked around frantically for help. Tell me what to do, and I'll do it!

"All my half-considered assumptions about learning and education came crashing to the ground. I had to dig deep, draw on hidden resources, reach out to others, find the courage to take risks."

"The one thing I never want to hear out here,'' Ayres tells the students, "is, 'Tell me what to do.'''

Soft-spoken, gentle and unfussy, James Ayres transfixes students and audiences alike with the wonder of Shakespeare's words.

Shakespeare summer camp

In 2000, Ayres turned over the reins to James N. Loehlin, one of his Winedale students from 1983-84, who became an author, as well as a professor of English and director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program.

Loehlin built on the first three decades, and it is still going strong, despite two years of Zoom Shakespeare during the pandemic.

“Shakespeare at Winedale has never been about the final performance, it’s been about the learning process,” Loehlin told Texas Monthly in 2020. “That’s what keeps us returning to Shakespeare. We come back to his plays at different moments and under different conditions in life, and every time we’re able to find meaningful takeaways within them.”

Ayres had been ready move on, at least a little.

"I hadn't had a vacation from the university in 30 years," Ayres says about leaving the position. "Yet I immediately started Camp Shakespeare. It's the same program as for university students, just for smaller people."

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Drawing from area students ages 11-16, the new program started as a day camp that ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It turned into residential camp like the UT program in 2003. The younger players stay overnight at a bed and breakfast. Their first play was "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Thirteen years ago, Camp Shakespeare got a boost from another leader, Robin Grace Soto, an incredibly energetic and charismatic teacher, who for several years also served as founding director of the Flower Hill Foundation in Austin. That group preserves and manages the Flower Hill Urban Homestead Museum.

One of the first things she does each summer is to lead the youths in improvisations, which bind the performers together and gets them over the initial stage panic. 

"I was knocked over by her," Ayres says. "She is the brightest teacher I ever met, and what a wonderful human being."

Soto thinks that middle school is the perfect age to tackle the Bard for the first time.

"Shakespeare deals with the human condition in a way that is accessible and compelling to middle and high school students," Soto says. "They, too, are starting to grapple with these questions of what it means to be human. To be an independent person.

"Working with Shakespeare’s plays in this way gives us the language and a safe and creative space to talk about things like identity, the injustices of the world, and our complex emotions and motivations."

The Camp Shakespeare kids do not study and perform just Shakespeare's easiest or lightest plays; here, two students perform in "The Merchant of Venice."

Keepers of the flame

At almost 90, Ayres, who moved from his longtime residence in South Austin to a farm near La Grange, is not ready to step away from the Winedale experience.

Soto is not surprised.

"Because Doc identified Shakespeare as the vehicle, because he knows it is everlasting and ever-changing," Soto told Frazier in the documentary film, "it's the perfect vehicle for him to keep engaging with youths."

One similarity between the college and middle-school experiences is the role of social isolation.

"I'm far from the first alum to say this, but at Winedale, students are like characters in a Shakespeare play who leave the city and wind up in a space in the natural world," Faires says. "They're far from Austin and their regular lives, just a small group with nothing but Shakespeare to show them what's possible, which means anything's possible."

Ayres agrees.

"It's very much like going into the Forest of Arden," Ayres says about the secluded, magical woods in "As You Like It."

"There is no clock in the forest."

Shakespeare at Winedale has been something of an ecstatic experience for UT students of literature. It is not designed for those enrolled in the drama department.

Shakespeare in a barn

Camp Shakespeare presents "As You Like It" and "Macbeth" from June 24 to July 17 at theaters in La Grange and Gonzales, as well as at the Winedale Barn.

For information, go to liberalarts.utexas.edu/winedale/programs/camp-shakespeare.

Shakespeare at Winedale presents "Much Ado About Nothing," "Two Noble Kinsman" and "The Winter's Tale" from July 22 to Aug. 6 at the Winedale Barn.

For information and tickets, go to liberalarts.utexas.edu/winedale/performances-and-tickets/current-season/summer-season.

To see "Take Pains. Be Perfect," the documentary about Camp Shakespeare, go to pbs.org/video/take-pains-be-perfect-a8uepq.