This summer, dozens of alumni of the English Department’s Shakespeare at Winedale program will take the stage once again at the Winedale Historical Complex to commemorate the program’s 40th anniversary.
Every Saturday and Sunday from July 14 to Aug. 8, they will give special pre-show performances. The summer will conclude with a special reunion performance on Aug. 14.
“There are some very exciting things in store for this summer,” says James Loehlin, the Shakespeare at Winedale Regents Professor and director of the program. “For the first time in Winedale history, we’re hoping to get students from throughout the history of the program to perform scenes from every one of Shakespeare’s plays.”
Anniversary celebrations will coincide with the summer season of performances by Shakespeare at Winedale students in the total-immersion summer course. This year’s season will showcase three plays: “Twelfth Night,” “Macbeth,” and “Henry VI, Part I.”
For decades students enrolled in the program have rigorously practiced, rehearsed and performed Shakespeare’s works in a century-old hay barn near the idyllic country town of Round Top. From future doctors and lawyers to performing artists, they have shaped their lives in the confines of the beloved barn.
What makes the program unique, Loehlin says, is that students from many different academic backgrounds are chosen to participate in the intense three-month course that focuses on not just acting, but the entire production process. About 16 summer session performers are selected through an interview process — with no auditions — from a pool of applicants from colleges and schools throughout the university.
In the 1960s, philanthropist Ima Hogg restored and donated the Winedale property, about halfway between Austin and Houston, to the university. She encouraged James “Doc” Ayres, professor emeritus of English and founding director of Shakespeare at Winedale, to transform the rustic barn into an Elizabethan stage and let students perform there. Since 1970 students enrolled in the summer program make an annual voyage to the iconic barn, where they eat, sleep and breathe Shakespeare.
Keeping with Ayres’ vision to provide a powerful learning experience through performance, the program has branched out into three distinct dimensions: the spring and summer courses for college students, an outreach program, and Camp Shakespeare.
Students enrolled in the summer program spend two months studying and performing three plays in a distraction-free environment. Spring semester students study Shakespeare at the university and cap off the semester by showcasing their talents at special performances at Winedale.
Every year, students participating in Shakespeare at Winedale Outreach, a program for elementary and middle school children in underserved communities, practice and perform Shakespearean classics in workshops at their schools. They perform at annual events such as the Spring Winedale Festival of Play and the Children’s Shakespeare Festival at The University of Texas at Austin. Students enrolled in Camp Shakespeare, a two-week residential camp for children, ages 10 to 16, perform during the summer at Winedale.
On July 17 students participating in the outreach program will perform at the “Midsummer Night at Winedale” gala, along with Winedale summer students and alumni of the program. “We want this gala to feature the past, present and future of the program,” says Loehlin.
“The Winedale program — whether it’s an intensive summer immersion course or a class project for a fourth grader — can be a transformative learning experience,” says Loehlin.
A Plan II and Shakespeare at Winedale alumnus, Loehlin found his love for Shakespeare and literature after spending two summers performing, rehearsing and building props on the barn’s foot-worn stage.
“Long hours of working in the summer heat is physically demanding,” says Loehlin. “But it’s such a unique experience because the students are taken away from the distractions and complications of modern student life and are able to form lasting relationships with like-minded people in a beautiful country setting.”
Many Winedale alums return to the barn each summer to watch performances and reunite with old friends. This year’s season will be particularly special for former “Winedalers” because they’ll have the opportunity to get back up on stage and perform with classmates.
Loehlin says he, too, is looking forward to reuniting with his fellow performers, with whom he’s kept in touch for 25 years.
“For many students, including myself, a summer at Winedale is a real turning point in their education,” Loehlin says. “It’s a very intensive communal experience that leaves people with a positive feeling and a desire to revisit the plays and the people they worked with.”