A 40-year les­son in Shake­speare at Winedale

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - By Cate Blouke

Stu­dents spend nine weeks el­e­vat­ing the Bard’s words into or­ganic per­for­mances

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, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of English at UT.

Loehlin, in turn, was a stu­dent un­der the pro­gram’s first (and found­ing) di­rec­tor: the le­gendary James Ay­ers, known to most sim­ply as “Doc.” Ex­cept Loehlin was a stu­dent the year I was born, and by that time Ay­ers 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 — preshow per­for­mances by for­mer stu­dents of scenes from ev­ery one of Shake­speare’s plays over the course of the sea­son. In ad­di­tion, Ay­ers 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.

Ay­ers, now a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, be­gan the pro­gram in 1970 in an ef­fort to teach stu­dents a tex­tual ap­proach to per­for­mance. Adamantly anti-the­atri­cal, Ay­ers 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.

Mark Metts

In this sum­mer’s pro­duc­tion of ‘Mac­beth’ at Shake­speare at Winedale, Mel John­son plays Fleance and Emilio Banda is Ban­quo.

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