The Austin Chronicle

Camp Shakespeare Documentary Says We Will Meet, And There We May Rehearse

PBS film Take Pains. Be Perfect. puts UT's theatre program center stage

By Ellen Daly, April 8, 2022, Screens

Ninety miles east of Austin stands a 19th-century barn, which serves as a Shakespearean sanctuary. A former stagecoach inn, its restoration was overseen by "First Lady of Texas" Ima Hogg who then donated the property to the University of Texas in 1967 on the condition that it be used for the instruction and performance of theatre.

Enter UT professor James "Doc" Ayres. He believed that Shakespeare could only rightfully be learned through performance and thus established the Shakespeare at Winedale program, which gives UT students the opportunity to travel to the barn every summer to immerse themselves in the bard of Avon's continuing relevance. Ayres so believed in the mission of the program that he wanted to offer the same experience to younger kids, and Camp Shakespeare was born.

The upcoming documentary Take Pains. Be Perfect. (debuting on KLRU April 8) takes viewers into the barn alongside 14 11- to 16-year-olds as they are led by camp director Robin Grace Soto and Ayres himself (now "mission director" of the camp), from day-one icebreakers to a tearful final performance. It's what happens in between that truly enchants. "There's two plays at camp," Soto explained, "the Shakespeare play, and the play of our class – the story of these 14 students and how they enter into that world and create the play."

The collective willingness of the kids to be questioned and challenged inspires admiration and awe alike. Throughout the film, they're encouraged to consider their own limits – why doing certain things might challenge or embarrass them, and how to change that. They're also pushed to consider the meaning of the text, to deliver lines as if they themselves were saying them.

"Shakespeare is the vehicle for doing something larger," said Soto, "saying 'yes,' supporting others, taking risks. We accomplish these things through the work on the play but also through improvisation and games. Shakespeare deals with the human condition, which middle and high schoolers are starting to grapple with themselves. Performance gives us the language to talk about things like identity and emotions. We see a beautiful progress in the way both of those stories develop: their play and also the individual stories of the kids."

Take Pains. Be Perfect. director and producer Kristi Frazier was especially impressed by how the kids operated without technology. "The kids became so close so fast," she explained. "With technology, we lose touch with our humanity. The camp opened my eyes to the importance of language, literature, and human connection. The way we speak – what we choose to emphasize – really affects the meaning of what we say."

The transformations the kids undergo aren't short-term. Frazier spoke with Camp Shakespeare grads John Rando (Broadway director and Tony Award winner) and Michael Barker (co-president of Sony Pictures Classics), both of whom attribute their success to their time in the barn. "They still go back to Camp Shakespeare, saying it's the best thing they've ever done.

"Our point with the film is to let people know about Camp Shakespeare, so they can send their kids," added Frazier. "We also wanted to investigate Doc's legacy and explore his magic formula. This is his life's work. Doc and Robin give these kids autonomy and want them to make their own decisions, and they really push each other and become so much more resilient. It's pretty amazing."

Take Pains. Be Perfect. premieres on Friday, April 8, at 9pm on Austin PBS HDTV.

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