Born in the Barn
How Shakespeare at Winedale spawned some of Austin's best theatre
James Ayres didn't set out to create an army of ardent theatre makers. All he was trying to do was help students in a university English course see more of the possibilities within a Shakespeare play through the lens of performance, to learn the play from the inside. But like an experimental drug with unexpected side effects, Ayres' approach yielded not just a slew of students with an expanded sense of the Bard's genius, but a mob that, having tasted the fruit of the Tree of Theatre, craved more.
So they took to Austin's stages, all these young people many with no theatrical experience beyond what they'd gained through Ayres' course (officially titled The Play Through Performance but almost universally known as Shakespeare at Winedale, for the German farming settlement where Ayres has been exploring Shakespeare's work since 1971). Some auditioned for productions with existing companies. Others quite a few others developed their own theatrical vehicles, typically with fellow alumni of Ayres' program. And Austin theatre has never been the same.
Over Shakespeare at Winedale's 34 years, at least 19 theatre troupes have been founded or co-founded by its graduates, among them the Rude Mechanicals, Austin Shakespeare Festival, the Bedlam Faction, even Esther's Follies. Like the man who taught them, Winedalers have been innovators on the scene, leading the way in promoting creative collaboration and collective work; in reviving obscure dramas and creating new ones; in making great theatre the kind that's powerful, that sticks with you your whole life on a shoestring. They've distinguished themselves with their passion for theatre and conviction in its power to transform lives. Shakespeare at Winedale graduates have made immeasurable contributions to the city. And when you factor in the national acclaim for a Lipstick Traces or the fact that among its alums is a Tony Award-winning director, the program's impact extends from coast to coast.
Sussing out exactly how this one little course came to be responsible for so much creative activity isn't easy. After all, this is a course aimed at nontheatre majors Ayres points with pride to the classes' aspiring engineers, nurses, attorneys, journalists, etc. and it requires them to spend weeks in a tiny community 90 miles from Austin, where their classroom/laboratory for experimenting with drama is a 19th-century un-air-conditioned hay barn in which they'll toil all day, every day, through the hottest days of a Central Texas summer. And they don't just perform the plays, they also make the costumes, hang the lights, sweep the barn, empty the trash, and when the performances are over and the audience files out of the barn, they hand out lemonade. As initiations into theatre go, it's pretty grueling. And this inspires people to want to make more theatre how exactly?
Well, Ayres himself might say, as he did in a 1995 interview, that "Like everything else that happens [at Winedale], it's a mystery." But for those of us who've been through the program and here I should own up to having cut some of my theatrical teeth at Winedale, classes of '78 and '80 it's a mystery for which we've assembled a few clues. The two most obvious can be seen in the name: Shakespeare and Winedale. The program is centered around the works of the world's premier dramatist, not studying the plays he wrote from a scholarly distance but immersing students in them, to live in those words, in those worlds, for weeks. It can be heady, like your first sip of class champagne from a crystal flute: The world becomes clearer, the genius of Shakespeare readily apparent. You get him. And when you get the guy at the top of the heap, you're getting a lot. You're getting life.
The fact that this is happening in a place removed from the world you live in heightens the experience. There's nothing from your life to distract you no other schoolwork, no bills, no TV, no movies, no lovers, no parents so your focus is totally on the plays, on play itself, and the achievements and epiphanies that rise from that can be enjoyed purely for what they are. Yes, the heat can beat you down like an ogre with a mallet, but Winedale has a way of smoothing that out: the abundance of grass, the great sheltering trees, the night skies so dark and yet so bright with stars. You're in the country, a wondrous pastoral escape like a forest in one of Shakespeare's comedies, where all one's problems, from romantic entanglements to vengeful political enemies, can be solved.
Now, not every problem is solved when you're at Winedale. (Just ask anyone from a class that had to tackle Cymbeline!) But when you're tackling problems with a bunch of people who are working on them as hard as you are, it brings you close to one another in a way that is rare in most of life. Your reliance on them and theirs on you forge bonds, as in the best teams or families. When a class achieves a genuine spirit of ensemble, they can turn a play into a dramatic world with a richness of texture that's stunning.
And once you've done it, you realize that you can do it again. You can create a world from a script. You can sew costumes, even if you've never sewn before. You can light a stage. You can make antique poetry flash into life and fire. And having piles of money to do it doesn't matter. What matters is the will to do it and the desire to play and the willingness to give up who you are for the sake of everyone else. As Shanna Smith ('94-'95) put it, "Winedale forces you to see that you really can do anything that you put your mind to. Since many people leave Winedale with theatre on the brain, it's a natural step to think, 'Why can't I produce a play? I know all the necessary elements and how to do them; so why not do it?'"
And so they do. They started 30 years ago, and they're still at it, the latest Winedale-inspired project making its debut next week. Former students banded together under the name Poor Tom Productions are staging a free cue-script performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona July 28-Aug. 1 at the Dog & Duck Pub. (To learn more, visit www.poortom.org.)
Alas, much of what makes Winedale what it is can't be accessed back "in the world": the rural setting, the round-the-clock camaraderie, the lack of distractions, and, of course, Ayres himself or, as nearly everyone calls him, Doc whose knowledge, vision, and singular character had everything to do with the program's success. The history of Winedale-inspired efforts is littered with the frustrations of those who learned that the hard way one such is recounted in these pages by James Loehlin, classes of '83 and '84 and, since Ayres passed him the baton in 2000, director of the program.
Still, the lessons of Winedale endure: the value of play, the power in the collective spirit, and the sense of possibilities. There's a reason that John Rando, who won a Tony for his direction of Urinetown: The Musical, says, "I like to think that everything that I do in the theatre today and since I first went to Winedale in 1980 is rooted in the spirit of collaboration and invention that Winedale fostered."
These pages contain tributes to Shakespeare at Winedale and Doc from the people whose lives have been altered by them.