Shakespeare at Winedale offers students a one-of-a-kind learning experience through performance


Shweta Gulati

Shakespeare at Winedale students perform four shows each summer in a renovated hay barn outside of Round Top, Texas. This season the cast will perform “The Comedy of Errors”, “The Tempest”, “Henry IV”, and “Doctor Faustus”. 

Willa Young

A much-needed cool breeze flows through the three open sides of a dilapidated German hay barn on a warm Texas night. The barn is miles from city life, far enough from streetlights that the Milky Way can clearly be seen each night, but the inside is packed with a cramped and sweaty audience. The dull hum of the crowd hushes as the lights dim, and a group of young men and women clad in Elizabethan garb take the stage. This is not a conventional theater, nor is it a conventional experience. But Shakespeare at Winedale does not try to be conventional. 

“Performing in the barn setting is unforgettable”, said Alexander Fischer, Plan II senior and seasoned “Winedaler”. “It’s surrounded by just absolutely gorgeous Texas countryside, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

It may sound like a vacation, but being a cast member of the University of Texas’ 43-year-old tradition is far from a breeze. Between 15 and 20 students are selected and cast in four classic Shakespeare plays in the spring. At the beginning of summer the group is shipped off to Winedale, a completely isolated area near Round Top, where they spend nine grueling weeks preparing to perform three plays, eight times each, in the barn-turned-theater. Each cast member works seven days a week, 18 hours a day, completely shut off from the outside world. 

“It’s just a really good, in-depth study of Shakespeare, particularly his language,” Plan II junior Lucy Junkersaid. “It shows how easily acting comes when you’re just given a script.”

Professor James Loehlin from the University of Texas’s English Department has been directing the Shakespeare at Winedale program for 13 years. He took over for Professor James B. Ayres, who started the program and solely directed for 30 years. Loehlin was a “Winedaler” himself in the 1980s.

“I found it, as many students have, to be a transformative experience, and it made me love Renaissance and Shakespeare drama very deeply,” Loehlin said, “I have tried to carry on in the essentials [of] what Dr. Ayres wanted the program to be — total Shakespeare immersion.”

Loehlin compared the Winedale learning experience to learning a foreign language. People generally learn a language much faster and better when they are in the country itself and become a part of the culture. By performing the works, instead of just reading them, each cast member retains a deeper and more complex understanding of Shakespeare, according to Loehlin.

“Dr. Loehlin’s expertise is just outstanding,” Fischer said. “You need only be in a few minutes of rehearsal with him to know exactly what’s going on in his head.”

Shakespeare at Winedale has two separate sections. The first is the full-immersion, completely isolated and highly selective summer program. The second is a spring course taught by Loehlin. The class analyzes between five and seven texts throughout the semester, prepares one full play and visits Winedale for three weekends, culminating in a final performance in the barn. This semester, the spring class is performing “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Both sections of the course are open to all students, regardless of Shakespeare or acting experience.

“Part of what’s useful about coming from a non-theatre background is having a different perspective,” said Liz Fisher, Shakespeare at Winedale program coordinator and another Winedale alumna. “You’re able to see things that Shakespeare pros don’t see, and that is so valuable and important.”

During the summer program, cast members eat, sleep, work and play together 24 hours a day for over 65 days. This close proximity, complete isolation and high- stress environment, combined with the intense summer heat in Texas, creates a familial relationship among the class members.

“It is impossible to spend that much time with a small group of people and not get incredibly close,” Fisher said. “On the flip side, there comes a time when you get really irritated with each other.”

Through the mentorship of Ayres, Loehlin has fostered a Shakespeare program rooted in tradition.

“You’ll have to forgive me, but there are just some parts of being at Winedale that words won’t help describe it,” Fischer said “You just have to be there.”