We all have those special Texas summer places that draw us back—the dance pavilion at Garner State Park, the swimming hole at Krause Springs, a particular stretch of Padre Island. Ever since English professor James “Doc” Ayres founded the Shakespeare at Winedale program in 1971, the Theatre Barn at Winedale has been one of those special places for countless folks around the state who have embraced the annual trek to Fayette County as a beloved rite of summer, heat and all.
They come to partake in all the varied delights this historic area on the cusp of East Texas has to offer—listening to a heartfelt performance of Shakespeare in an open-sided hay barn, picnicking and sipping wine under pecan trees, taking a hike down a dirt road with the kids, tossing a frisbee in an open meadow, watching a gentle breeze play with the branches of a tall loblolly pine. Often, their final Winedale moment of the evening, after the play is done and the students have begun packing up props and costumes, is a last lingering glance up at the dazzling expanse of the Milky Way spread across the night sky. There is a theme that runs through many of Shakespeare’s comedies and romances of a journey from the city or court to what critic Northrop Frye called “the green world”—a place of imaginative freedom where time slows, hearts open and mysterious transformations are possible. Winedale has been such a place for generations of students, and visitors share in that experience of discovery as well. Driving back home after some time spent out there, you just might—like weaver Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who is “translated” for a brief time in the woods outside Athens thanks to the gift of an ass’s head from Puck—find yourself ruminating on the “most rare vision” of what you have seen and heard, and feeling just a bit transformed yourself. It’s not too early to begin planning now for a midsummer visit to Winedale—so here are some tips to help you get the most out of your journey.
When to go
This summer the students—led by James Loehlin, who took the reins in 2001 when Doc Ayres stepped down after 30 years—are performing Taming of the Shrew, Merry Wives of Windsor and the rarely-seen Troilus and Cressida from July 17 to Aug. 10. Performances are Thursday – Sunday nights at 7:30, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. Plan to buy tickets in advance and arrive at least a half-hour early—even earlier if you want to soak in the ambiance and pick a shady picnic table. (Note: If you are buying tickets at the door, bring cash or a check.) The famous Winedale Hunter’s Stew and vegetarian Gatherer’s Stew is available (for a $10 donation) between the Saturday plays on the first three weekends; a special reception is held the final Saturday evening. To see all three plays and make a fun weekend of it, find a bed and breakfast in the area—a good resource is the Chamber of Commerce of nearby Round Top.
What to bring
First essential: an ice chest packed with water, cold drinks and snacks (no concessions at performances). Round Top Mercantile on Texas 237 just north of the square in Round Top is a good spot for provisions and sandwiches on the way in if you don’t have time to pack up at home. Next, ‘day in the park’ supplies: a sun hat, sunscreen, cool clothing, a big picnic spread, folding chairs and a frisbee for the kids. If you want to bring home some Winedale T-shirts, tote bags or caps, bring cash or the checkbook. Finally, don’t forget your college Collected Works for brushing up on your Shakespeare before the plays.
Round Top, five miles from Winedale, is famous for its antique shops, pies at Royers Café, the historic Bethlehem Lutheran Church and its nearby cemetery, the garden, grounds and concerts at pianist James Dick’s Round Top Festival Institute and shops at Henkel Square, for starters. The Winedale Historical Complex grounds, now administered by UT’s Briscoe Center for American History, are rich in Texas history; the property was restored and given to the university by legendary philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg in 1967, and tours of the Stagecoach Inn and other historic buildings are available by advance appointment – call Winedale administrator Barbara White at (979) 278-3530 to arrange. Fayetteville, 20 miles away, has a lively town square and restaurants.
Camp Shakespeare performances
In 2002, Shakespeare at Winedale founder “Doc” Ayres started Camp Shakespeare, a two week residential program for children ages 11-16. The final performances are remarkable for their passion, clarity and intelligence.
This summer, the campers are performing Two Gentlemen of Verona on June 20, at 7 p.m. at Henkel Hall in Round Top and June 21, at 1 p.m. in the Barn. Twelfth Night will be performed on July 11, at 7 p.m. at Henkel Hall, and July 12 at 1 p.m. in the Barn. It’s well worth an early trip to see the ‘next generation’ in action. For information or reservations, email Doc Ayres or visit the Shakespeare at Winedale website.