25 Years of Shakespeare in Central Texas

The Days of Winedale and Roses

by Robert Faires

The title of the course is "The Play Through Performance." But the world at large knows it as Shakespeare at Winedale, Winedale being the 19th-century German farming settlement in Central Texas to which Dr. James Ayres has been bringing students for 25 years to forge a link between 20th-century Americans and a 16th-century English playwright. It's an unlikely combo, but as hundreds of the program's alumni and thousands of its audience members will testify, it works.

Participants in the program move to the area for two months in the summer, during which time they study Shakespeare's plays by performing them, taking roles in three shows, memorizing the lines, rehearsing them in a barn which serves as the theatre, creating costumes, hanging lights, doing whatever is necessary to give the play life. Public performances are scheduled over four weekends, and despite the fact that it's August and the barn is not air-conditioned, all 420 seats are typically filled. The mix of profound drama and the process by which the students come to produce it and the place in which they do it liberates the participants and the text in thrilling ways.

Shakespeare at Winedale is more than an unusual theatrical event, however; it is a pioneering effort in Shakespearean study, looking at the work through performance rather than textual analysis. The approach has been widely accepted in recent years, but Ayres began developing the concept at UT in the Sixties and started the Winedale program in 1971, after legendary philanthropist Ima Hogg challenged Ayres to put the Bard in a barn on the property there.

The program marks its Silver Anniversary this summer, praised by major scholars in the field and a model for similar programs across the country. With the 14 members of the class tackling The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice, and alumni returning to stage a special performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Chronicle discussed the program's history and purpose with its founder. The interview was held at the Winedale Historical Center, near the theatre barn, with class members around us filling the air with lines from As You Like It.

Austin Chronicle: What started you on the "play through performance" concept?

James Ayres: I just got an idea one day. It was in my lecture class and it had to do with The Merchant of Venice. The play thrives on complexity, ambiguity, and disturbance, and what I like to do is get every ounce of that out of the play. We were talking about Act IV, Scene I, the trial scene, and what happens normally - and I love to teach it because it bothers everyone so much - is the students immediately try to solve the bothersome things: It's either anti-Semitic or it's not; the Christians are bad and Shylock is good or vice versa. Mostly, it's the first. That's the last part of the 20th century doing that rather than the play.

Anyway, we were going back and forth and I said, "I'm going to take a group of people and work with them [on the scene]." Each time they did it, I tried to point out the possibilities of turning points, because it all turns on something. You can argue about the damn thing, but one thing is sure, a re-versal takes place. Something changes, and where are we given the sense of that? We went over and over it, then we did two performances of it, two totally different ways.

It was astonishing the papers that came out of it. Many of the students wrote very deftly about the complexity and the ambiguity of the scene, that you could see the thing in so many different ways. And that showed me that performance is a way of opening up rather than closing up a play.

That's how it all started. I had done my dissertation on Shakespeare and Shakepeare in performance after he died and what acting companies did to the plays, so you could say the dissertation was turning me in that direction. But I think it really started in the classroom, with people, with students.

And this place, of course, I just happened on it. Like everything else that happens here, this is a mystery. I found this place through a barbecue reception. Miss Ima was over against that barn, and that's when we had the conversation.

The most wonderful thing that happened to me was finding that barn. Because, just as soon as I found it, it took me out of the classroom and into an arena that was totally different. And I've said many times to students that if I can get them lost, we have the possibility of doing something very unusual.

AC:How much of the character of Winedale itself has seeped into the program?

JA: I think if you sit out here long enough, you find out the answer to that. The rural setting, with the barn instead of a theatre, the sense of community, the idea that nobody's here, it's quiet. You see things, you hear things, like the deer or the comets at night. You don't have the traffic or the smell of the city. It's very much like the Forest of Arden [in As You Like It]. It's got winter and rough weather, but it has promise, it has difference, it has all sorts of complexity and conflict, but in the end it's all resolved, and it's resolved in that world.

Winedale has its own ambience, it's clear. Being separated from town obviously provides focus for what we're doing. It isolates the students and really gets them into not only the play's spirit but the play. They learn it from the inside out, by painting the picture while they're in it. It accomplishes a lot of other things in the process, but the intent is to study the play through performance.

It also puts the students on a different time. There's no clock at Winedale. I believe in that. Orlando says it: "There's no clock in the forest." But he's dealing with a lady who knows what time means. I'm that way, too. There's no clock here. There need not be a sense of clock. We work seven days a week, 15, 18 hours a day. We get up at 5:30am to come out here. And we've gotten so used to that routine that we know exactly what we're doing within some kind of time period, but we don't know what time it is. Now, I do have a schedule that says you better be here at 5:30 or... It sounds like a contradiction, but it works. Ariel says, "He speaks of time in terms of seasons," and I look upon what time it is here in terms of our progress in the play, where we are.

I talk about Fool and why fools wear coxcombs and why the cock is one of the most important birds in our lives. It's the awakening of conscience. It crows every morning. It wakens you physically. That's what goes on here. This is a place that awakens.

Peter Brook went to an aboriginal village and told a group he wanted them to perform an improvisational play about a shoe. Those people didn't wear shoes much and weren't quite sure what the hell was going on. They became frustrated. So they had a meeting and said they were completely lost. And Brook said, "Good. Now you can start." And they did. And they became original. That's why the place is important, that's why the isolation is important, that's why the music is important. It takes you to another level.

People have come to look upon the barn as a special place. Carl Smith used to say it was magical. I never believed that and I still don't. Carl was that kind of person. He did wonderful things in there and thought the barn had something to do with it. You tell that to a student and he walks in there and nothing happens, he wonders where in the hell is this magic? No, it's work. And play. Work and play. As Peter Brook says, "If you really work hard at it, then it becomes play."

AC: How do you go about figuring out who might be right for this kind of experience?

JA: That's the hardest part. That's the damn hardest part. I don't know. It's still got me. After 25 years, you'd think I'd know. I've even gone to a psychologist and said, "Is there any way I can give a test?" I want people who are committed to learning and understanding Shakespeare and who will, like the merchant, "hazard everything for something," give up rather than hold back, surrender everything for what we're after.

Every once in a while, I make a mistake, the person is not ready. We've only had one or two people here who could not do this. We've had several who found it a little too uncomfortable. They prefer to be home under the air conditioner, and they've gone home. I've only sent two people home in 25 years. Because they won't surrender to what's going on, they don't want to be creative, I don't know what, but they resist.

Everything here seems to be an analogy to the play experience. I've written several times that what the kids undergo here is a struggle parallel to the characters' struggle in the plays. They're trying to be freer from the thing that gave them problems at the start of the play. And they do it by entering a world that's very different from their own.

We did Cymbeline last year, and it was a real trial. We never quite got it. We got the second part of it really well, the part in the woods. The part in the gnomos or man-made world, we had difficulty with. But when we got into the experience of freedom and disguise and play and song and feeling, it worked. And that's what the whole thing is about. n

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