Time out – some reflections on Shakespeare at Winedale…

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It’s 3am in a hotel in Cedar City, Utah, and after a full day on the road and in the air, I want to do some justice, however inadequate, to what we’ve just witnessed at Shakespeare in Winedale, Texas.

To begin at something like the beginning: turning off US-290 between Austin and Houston at La Grange and towards modest advertising signs for ‘Antiques’ does not prepare the driver for the rich, anachronistic pleasures of Lafayatte County in general and of Winedale in particular. The latter was once a very small town populated by a score or two of Central Texas’s earliest settlers. It is now a preserved space, a time capsule of a handful of properties arranged spaciously amidst expansive, big-skied beauty. At the centre of the complex stands a barn and in that barn are 246 foldable seats and, improbably, one neo-Elizabethan wooden stage. The architecture of this stage is early modern with a hint of Escher. Exposed steps lead up on both sides to the balcony above, but another set of steps is half-visible upstage centre, and this, combined with the pleasing asymmetry of windows and seasoned beams, creates the impression of bustling improvisation. It’s hard to believe you have chanced upon such an implausible and quirky space; it at first resembles the middle of nowhere but quickly feels like the centre of the universe you’d most like to inhabit.

And it is on this stage, every summer for the last 44 years, that a group of young people, most in their early 20s, has created Shakespeare for an audience drawn both from hip and expanding Austin – currently the fastest-growing city in the US – and the distinctly unhip local towns that dot this rural landscape.

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We were privileged to spend the first hour or so on site with the man who is synonymous with Shakespeare at Winedale. Dr Jim Ayers, or ‘Doc’ as he is widely and affectionately known, rapidly conjured for us the moment when it all began in the late ’60s. Then a college professor at the University of Texas-Austin in his mid-thirties, Doc had been invited to a barbeque on the site, hosted by the oil-rich philanthropist and unfortunately-named Ima Hogg. ‘Hogg’ is not the easiest surname to redeem but one would have thought that Ima’s parents might have tried a bit harder to avoid what P.G. Wodehouse described as ‘foul work at the font’ – locals even joked that Ima Hogg had a sister called Youra. Partial responsibility must lie with her father, James ‘Big Jim’ Hogg, whom Doc described as ‘the only socialist Governor Texas ever had’, although the adjective might be relative.

Ima’s politics may (or may not) have had something to do with the extraordinary offer she made Doc that day. Wrapped in furs, impervious to the 100-degree heat, she invited him into the sweltering barn and told him in a regal fashion that it was now his space to do what he wanted with. What he wanted to do, he realised, was to remove his students from the scheduled classes and unscheduled distractions of university life in Austin and take them out to co-create Shakespeare.

Forty-four years later, and in exceptionally rude health, Shakespeare at Winedale differs from most stops on our trip in at least two regards – first, it consists almost exclusively of student actors drawn from all disciplines who can receive college credits for the 6-weeks they spend at Winedale; second, it describes itself as a program and not as a ‘festival’. But the experience for students and audiences alike has all the hallmarks of festivity – it is calendrical and finite, it is outdoorsy, communal and informal, it has a defined object of celebration (the works of Shakespeare), and it has a coherent set of rituals. Most profoundly perhaps, it requires of many of its participants that they make the journey from the city through the farmlands and down the back roads to (as the French would say) ‘assist’ at the event.

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When asked, Doc cited Northrop Frye and Peter Brook as influences on his vision for the program. From Frye he adapted the notion of Winedale as a ‘green world’, a space for unfettered play beyond the corruption and unnatural decrees of city and court. Parts (though not all) of Brook’s The Empty Space infused his thinking about the theatrical power of simplicity and roughness. Although Doc was loath to describe the Winedale vision as political in any way, the egalitarian ethos of the place bears many family resemblances to other 1960s counter-cultural responses to belligerent capitalism, and, behind that, links to the great American environmental-spiritual tradition of Thoreau. One of the actors told me a lovely story – part of Winedale folklore – about one of the first companies of actors who worked here in the summer of 1974. Their seclusion had been so absolute that it was only when they returned to their families at the end of the run that they discovered that President Nixon had resigned. That wouldn’t happen now, but it is noticeable that many of the actors choose not to bring phones with them and are no doubt seeking an equivalent sensation to their predecessors of immersion in something outside the news cycle, Something That Matters.

They know time is scarce. Doc spoke of the pain of the decision to disband the first company of actors when many of them wanted to repeat the cycle year after year, and actors are now limited to two summers with the company before they join the ranks of remarkably engaged and present alumni. Many of these attended the season preview party at which we made short (I hope) speeches and presented Winedale with Greg Wyatt’s plaque. It was noticeable how many alumni and audience members approached us at the event with the itch to tell their own stories about what the program (I keep on wanting to write ‘festival’) means to them.

I can’t fully say what it means to me in this blog. I will have to follow up when time is less urgent. Even noting here that we were very lucky to attend dress rehearsal runs of Troilus and Cressida and The Merry Wives of Windsor but could not, alas, stay for the dress of the summer’s third production, The Taming of the Shrew, reminds me of something I haven’t yet spelled out: after just over 3 weeks of rehearsal, this ensemble presents a repertory of 3 Shakespeare plays over 3 long weekends of packed performances to a mixed audience of country folk and temporary refugees from the city. Everyone in the ensemble not only acts, but sews costumes, operates the lights, makes the props, sings the songs, and contributes to the commemorative plywood cow that will stand with its predecessors to represent the spirit (and private jokes) of the class of 2014. All of this under the superb direction of Doc’s successor, Professor James Loehlin, who has posted on this site about Texas and Shakespeare, and who offered many rich insights in the interview we conducted with him yesterday.

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While I can think of antecedents and parallels, I have never seen anything quite like Shakespeare at Winedale. And all of this has been powerfully and movingly enriched by the memory of the much-loved Lizz Ketterer, a graduate of Winedale who went on to gain her PhD at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and without whose sunny influence we would not have chosen this stop and might never have left the freeway.

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