Boomerang Days: A Sip of Winedale

A Longhorn does college all over again.

Longhorns have made an art of surviving the heat of a Texas summer, from Shiner slushies and tubing the Guadalupe River to freezing one’s underwear each night and donning a secret smile each day. Then there are those who deck themselves out in layers of Renaissance garb and craft productions of a certain English playwright’s work, performing them in an open-aired barn in the sweltering Texas heat.

Madness, right? But there’s a method to this madness.

Shakespeare at Winedale has been a Longhorn tradition since 1970, when professor James B. Ayres started coaxing unexpecting students into a summertime fling with the Bard.

I missed out on this as student 20 years ago. I had friends who took the summer course, building sets and sewing cassocks and codpieces, and memorizing four Shakespearean plays in a matter of weeks, all in a nearly 150-year-old barn. They said it was great. I thought they were being sarcastic.

To understand these people, I head east from Austin into rural Texas, quickly abandoning the luxuries of city life like Starbucks and easy access to McRib sandwiches. Farms, churches, and the nation’s few remaining Blockbuster Videos dot the landscape. A little over an hour later I arrive in Winedale.

Winedale is small. No, small is too big a word. It’s tiny. The printed dot on your map is physically larger than the actual town. When the Shakespeare program is not in session, the community’s population is approximately two—and those two are dogs who have wandered over from nearby farms.

I arrive for a dress rehearsal of Antony and Cleopatra. I love a good romantic comedy, so I’m excited. Instead the stage runs wild with murder, adultery, burning lies, cutting insults, and lusty vows. It’s like watching The View.  

It celebrates the invaluable contributions of two great masters:
William Shakespeare and Kevin Bacon. 

The players are an eclectic collection. There are the obligatory English and theater majors, who you’d expect to being slinging sonnets. But some are computer engineers or government majors who must have gotten lost on the way to Houston. All of them are are onstage pouring everything they’ve got into these 400-year-old plays.

The plays are presented in a traditional style with the occasional anachronism. The sporadic Texas twang adds a cool twist to Shakespeare’s poetry. For As You Like It, the company incorporated elements of Footloose choreography into a jig. This celebrates the invaluable contributions of two great masters: William Shakespeare and Kevin Bacon.

Somehow, all the incongruities fit. The story of ancient Rome and Egypt written by a 16th-century English playwright performed in a barn in the middle of Texas. It’s like a smoothie made from everything that was left in your fridge after Thanksgiving: surprisingly delicious.

Program director Dr. James N. Loehlin, BA ’86, watches from the rehearsal seats, marking notes and grinning. He, like everyone, is clearly having a blast. There is a murder taking place on stage but everyone is thoroughly enjoying themselves. The players hit their marks, only rarely flubbing a line. I can’t memorize my email password. And the writing is good—really good. I mean, it’s no Big Bang Theory, but this Shakespeare guy might have a career ahead of him.

Loehlin graciously introduces me to the players not needed on stage.

“You can talk with Ryan. His character just died.”

Ryan Pakebusch, BA, BS ’17, raves about the program and points out Shakespeare’s ability to convey humanity’s many paradoxes. “People are capable of the cruelest and most beautiful actions.” I argue the same can be said for Michael Bay.

Backstage, Cassidy Schulz, a history and humanities senior, tells me how much she’s grown over the summer. “The program has given me a whole new look on life and … ” Hearing her cue, she dashes away. “I’ve got to be on stage!”

I see a red-bearded actor. Even offstage he seems particularly invested in his part. He looks pale and a little unsteady on his feet, as if Cleopatra herself might’ve driven a dagger into his belly. Turns out this was closer to the truth than I imagined.

“Meet Brian,” Loehlin introduces me. “He had his appendix out yesterday.”

As Shakespeare would’ve put it, whoa, dude!

Brian tells me that yes, he had his appendix removed the day before. He was rushed to the hospital in Brenham. The assistant director, Sonja Dosia, went with him, urging him to recite Shakespeare lines from King Lear in order to ward off the pain.

Once the foul jelly was expelled, Brian was eager to get back to his friends at Winedale. He made a speedy recovery and was back at the center by sundown the next day.

I ask how he feels. He takes a quick glance around—looking at the barn, the starry sky, the action on the stage—and smiles. “Pretty good,” he says, then adds, “Alack, I have appendix.”

 

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