Shakespeare at Winedale Celebrates 45 Years

Shakespeare at Winedale Celebrates 45 Years

As I drove along the back roads to Shakespeare at Winedale, nestled in a tranquil corner of southeast Texas, I couldn’t help but notice how secluded the area was. Only the occasional house dotted the road, and the only marking to identify Round Top’s hidden theatrical treasure was a lone parking sign. Once I finally turned down the correct road, I dashed into the cozy barn-turned-theater just as the show was beginning. And as the actors took their places, it dawned on me how unusual this experience really was.

Every summer since 1970, a group of University of Texas English students have made the hour-and-a-half drive from Austin to the isolated countryside in order to study and perform the work of William Shakespeare. For the first few weeks of the summer, students spend 15-18 hours a day, seven days a week, in residence at Winedale. The session concludes with 24 public performances in a 19th-century barn and a short tour of the works they have studied. This summer’s bill includes Pericles, Henry V, Twelfth Night, and, for the first time, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

Winedale is its own secluded piece of heaven. Air conditioning and cell phone service are nowhere to be found, but it is obvious why the students love it so much. Lush trees and tall green grass surround the little theater, across the road is a serene sparkling pond, and once the sun goes down, the entire Milky Way appears in its full glory.

Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies, had just begun when I dashed into the barn. As the actors took the stage, their excitement was palpable, and the audience applauded eagerly in return. One of the things that makes the Winedale program so special is the student performers, and this group is no exception. Most, if not all, of the participants are Shakespeare scholars and fanatics, so performing at Winedale is a dream come true. Some have no acting experience, but with their genuine love of the Bard, you would never have known. Their performances were so quick-witted and well timed that the audience was constantly erupting into laughter. After a particularly raunchy joke, a child next to me quietly asked his mother what everyone was laughing at.

As Shakespeare at Winedale marches into another summer, it’s clear that the program has become a mainstay of UT culture. Even in its 45th year, and the program’s 11th time performing Twelfth Night, the audience packed the barn and the students performed as passionately as ever. Perhaps what makes Winedale so unique is founder James Ayres’ philosophy that to truly study and understand Shakespeare’s work, you have to perform it. Due to the isolation from the outside world and total immersion into the literature, students have no choice but to fall head over heels in love with Shakespeare. And in turn, their devotion to the Bard inspires audiences. At the end of the performance, Feste, the play’s clown figure, sang alone on stage to end the story. The moment was broken only by thunderous applause and cheering when the character walked off into the wings.

No matter how you look at it, there’s something special about Winedale. And for the audience, it is a journey into another world. As I was leaving Winedale, the actors ran out into the field to greet us, and I was struck by the image of the renaissance characters hugging, talking, and frolicking with their 21st-century patrons. There’s something extraordinary about the entire Winedale experience, and after 45 years, the magic remains.

Photo courtesy AJ Leon on Flickr. 


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