Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
James “Doc” Ayres is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, and the founding director of Shakespeare at Winedale, an immersive UT summer program which brings students to rural Fayette County, Texas to study and perform Shakespeare. Doc, this program, and its offshoots are the subject of a recent documentary called “Take Pains, Be Perfect,” which celebrates the half-century of performance and connection fostered in this theater barn in the country.
Enjoy our conversation about rural ambiance, the right way to study Shakespeare, and how “the project depends upon the place,” below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Tell me a little about the origins of Shakespeare at Winedale, and then a little about the different versions of the program you’re running today.
James “Doc” Ayres: I had been teaching Shakespeare through performance at the University of Texas for six years when I was invited to a retirement dinner for Robert Sullivan, President of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, held at the Winedale property on October 6, 1970. I met Miss Ima Hogg in the receiving line. She asked me what I taught and when I told her Shakespeare, she said, “I want you to do Shakespeare here.” That was the beginning.
My first class at Winedale was November 15, 1970. The first summer “Shakespeare at Winedale” class was composed of 11 students who studied and performed scenes from the plays for two weeks, concluding with a public performance. In 1973, we performed The Tempest, our very first attempt at an entire play. For several years, I directed Spring and Summer versions of the course, focussing on a single play, until 1976, when I expanded the study to three plays and 24 public performances. That format for the Spring and Summer is still intact. As the program continued, we were fortunate enough to also develop (1) an outreach program for fourth and fifth grade students, now called “Shakespeare Outreach,” which is directed by one of my former students, Clayton Stromberger, (2) a course for prospective and practicing teachers, entitled “UTeach Shakespeare through Performance,” and (3) visits to London and Stratford, beginning in 1998, to perform at the re-created Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theater.
In 2000, when I passed the directorship of the University course to another former student, James Loehlin, I created Camp Shakespeare for 11-16 year old students. That program is now planning its 23rd year. Over the soon-to-be 53 years of Shakespeare at Winedale and Camp Shakespeare, former students have created and heavily influenced some 10 theater companies in Austin. From the beginning until now, the approach is essentially the same: exploring the play through the creative activity of ensemble play, painting the picture from within the painting, chipping away at the marble to find the character inside, trusting that the words of the play hold everything we need to know.
DY: What’s it like to put a bunch of college kids in the country together like this, and what’s the group’s relationship with the people and places outside the historical center where the program happens? I know that students are expected to study Shakespeare 15-18 hours a day – how much space does that leave for community engagement?
JA: Well, first of all, it is fun. Whether University or Camp students, participants live, work, and play together for long periods of time in a quiet rural community. Their focus is Shakespeare. Campers leave iPhones, tablets, headphones at home. Their only social life outside the camp experience is attending the 4th of July parade in Round Top and talking to audiences after performances. They become a very close-knit group with shared life-changing experiences and lasting friendships.
DY: How does being in such a rural place change the project?
JA: The ambiance of the countryside, Winedale and the Theater Barn, are keys to the experience. The purpose of studying the play through performance was to get the kids out of the classroom into a different space. The plays were written to be performed, not read and talked about in a classroom. Before I found Winedale, I held class sessions on the South Mall at UT, in the Capitol rotunda, at a cemetery, on the corner of Congress and Sixth Street. Winedale offers us spaces very much like the magical worlds of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the forest of Arden in “As You Like It,” remote, natural, peaceful, distant from urban societies, worlds where anything can happen and where everyone is free to play. So Winedale does not change the project. The project depends upon the place. It flourishes there.
DY: It’s clear from the documentary how much this program means to you. How has Shakespeare at Winedale changed you over the years?
JA: During these 52 years, I have developed very close friendships with students. The University students from 1970-2000 still hold reunions every 5 years, read and talk about Shakespeare and their Winedale lives. And send their children to Camp Shakespeare. I have a strong emotional connection with all of them. That has always been there, although it has grown stronger as we age and I rely on many of them for professional advice and long for the times when we can sit down and tell stories.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.