James Loehlin’s Inaugural Summer Leading Winedale

Friday, February 24, 2023

Like a good theater-maker, I am wrestling with all the actions that might be played in constructing this essay, a reflection on participating in James Loehlin’s inaugural Winedale class in the summer of 2001. And as they are wont to do, my thoughts and my heartstrings are moving quickly and rhizomatically, spreading and shooting: first come memories of performing three plays in a barn—Comedy of Errors, Henry V, and All’s Well—and those memories connect to my own years teaching Shakespeare and I laugh thinking of my students and that laugh leads me to all of the hours spent maniacally giggling with Winedale classmates and so I ponder the funny (perhaps it’s more like quirky) people we’ve become twenty years later and that pondering of the more adult paths we’ve taken since 2001 links to my own days working at the Guthrie Theater, links to a memory of a stupendous Romeo and Juliet sword fight, but then thoughts of work land me back in the present. My eyes return to the scene before me, settling on the trees in the backyard of the artist residency I direct. I take a deep breath and consider this ramble of memory. That moving tangle of rooted connections, those twenty plus years of life processes—personal and professional in nature, at times a little risky but almost always communal—are in no small part powered by the summer of 2001. In both overt and tacit ways, all connect to artistic and ethical frameworks catalyzed by a summer spent with James. 

But I get ahead of myself. I need to be more learnéd. I need to talk Shakespeare in performance. What did Professor James Loehlin teach me about Shakespeare in performance? How is a careful delivery of Paulina’s defense of Hermione transformed into a feminist call for justice? What did his Winedale teach about how “to be” and how “ not to be?” The servant who rushes onto stage at the end of Comedy of Errors, she is not simply reporting that her master’s beard has been “singed off with brands of fire.” She is urging her mistress to recognize the inherent dangers in a pair of scissors.

Aaaaah, and now I have done the thing that my Winedale class does when discussing our time with James and Shakespeare in performance. I am reveling in our inside life. I am cracking an inside joke about an inside joke about a servant with a potentially remarkable line involving scissors. I have moved away from a textual close-read of Shakespeare’s words and stories, and I am instead luxuriating within a space created by the entanglement of Shakespeare’s language with the very real community built in response to performing it. I use the word luxuriate deliberately here. I bask, I revel, I take delight, I wallow in all the goodness that came from the summer of 2001. And I suspect James’ later classes have similar, full-bodied responses to their time with James at Winedale. Cult-like in our faith, we Loehlin Winedalers proselytize that Shakespeare is best taught via the methodology of not simply performance but heart-forward barn performance: We believe in the poetry of worlds built in a small barn in rural Texas via semi-orchestrated theatrical action undertaken by a group of collegial misfits bent on energetically pursuing the beauty of Shakespeare and the beauty of one another. In the summer of 2001, we built worlds on the stage itself, but just as importantly, we built worlds inside and amongst ourselves.

Since Winedale, I’ve taught middle and high school, grads and undergrads. I occasionally teach at UT Austin now. I’ve also had the privilege to work in some hallowed theater and performance spaces with legendary artists. But regardless of where or how I am working, I return to a few seemingly simple Winedale-inspired questions: Why did that summer have such an enormous impact? And how might my own artistic and pedagogical practices create such change? At its most tangible pedagogical level, Winedale activated the body/mind/imagination in its curricular approach to studying Shakespeare. We arrived at Winedale already cast in three plays; we supposedly already knew our lines in said plays. Then for three months, day-after-day, we linked those lines to our bodies as we moved across the space of a stage in a barn; we layered more textured meaning to the characterizations and responses of our classmates; we interpolated new ideas via the reactions of the audience. Inside these months, Shakespeare became embodied: his words took on a tangible, physicalized form. James guided us through this process via the repetitions inherent to at least ten hours a day of rehearsal, all the while James also side-coaching with kind acuity from just beyond the edge of the stage. He guided us via games that loosened our spirits or questions that pushed our analysis of a word/line/scene/play. And sometimes James guided with a quiet conversation between just you and him. Alone in the barn talking with you about a Countess, about heart, about vulnerability, about allowing an audience to love you if you would just let them. I remember that single conversation just as vividly as I remember the opening lines of Henry V (cause, cult-member-like, we chanted them daily). As I write, I summon that quiet conversation about All’s Well to better understand its impact. In that moment, James gently asked me to connect my embodied learning to my own humanity, to my own depths. He asked me to share and receive love. A profound request delivered with such thoughtful kindness that I am still sitting with the lesson twenty years later.

Beyond learning Shakespeare via performance, living at Winedale for three months in a community led by James simultaneously created less tangible, arguably more significant pedagogical and artistic outcomes. James’ teaching at Winedale allowed for the creation of nonlinear, iterative pathways of practice that catalyzed lifelong transformation in our humanity. That summer, with great intentionality and awareness, from the clang of the morning wake-up bell to after-midnight dorm porch singing, students practiced not just Shakespeare but personhood, and this concentrated personhood practice built pathways to self-transformation. Pathways to better understanding community and our (dis)comfort within its systems; pathways for struggling with self-accountability; pathways for grappling with sustained focus and labor; pathways for productively processing failure and conflict with a spirit of generosity; pathways for embracing play and joy as essential elements in life’s day-to-day business. Pedagogically, these kinds of iterative lessons did not occur in linear curricular sequences, but rather by the messy process of generating interdependence: a mutual reliance between things. Whether he was defending a long-ass monologue to a student who only half-believed in the necessity of the Archbishop’s Salic Law speech at the top of Henry V (I still say cut it) or advocating for a longer round of morning volleyball to warm up our bodies or a longer round of late-night pie eating to slow them back down, James was teaching students how to feel, observe, and react to not only characters and stage action but to one another. In doing so, he created the space for students to practice their analysis of cause-effect patterns in language and in relationships without dictating the outcome of their meaning-making in either case. Hence, students learned to rely on their community to make meaning, to address mistakes, to embrace vulnerability, to give away control, to create a sense of connection and longing. Longing for Shakespeare’s work and longing for one another. This methodology of simultaneous relational and textual study created this keen practice of interdependence.

For three months, under James’ tutelage, students rehearsed this kind of relational malleability, or emergent strategy to borrow a social justice term. The grooves and pathways of those lessons sank so deeply into our DNA that they now exist as part of our humanity’s genetic code. In the twenty plus years since that transformation of self, my classmates and I regularly wax poetic about our elaborate system of inside jokes—including the secret secret-service crew (i.e., students with small roles and a lot of backstage time) that protected All’s Well’s royalty and Windale royalty Laurel Loehlin. But we equally ponder how the summer changed our very being. And because the summer of 2001 taught me that thinking and creating alone are often an ego’s fool pursuit, I reached out to some classmates for help understanding our transformations. I asked them to share three memories that first came to mind when thinking about Winedale. From Sean: “Freedom. I’ve always been socially awkward and insecure in general, and theater provided an escape from that. Being in an environment that promoted play freed me to be more myself during high school and college, but Winedale was next level. It wasn't just a few hours a couple nights a week. It was all day, every day. That summer was one of the few times in my life I felt completely free to be my full, silly, slightly reckless self.” From Clari: “I also think about learning—as an adult—what it meant to fully immerse yourself in a moment in time. And to get to know people through collective action rather than through their personal likes and dislikes. What a gift…the rarity of being immersed in a moment, experiencing life through the lens of aged text, and the love of James Loehlin… Oh and volleyball. ” From Jim: “Wearing multi-layered upholstery fabric costumes and feather pillows as fat suits…when the temperature in the shade exceeded 100 degrees (like, what?! we did that??)... BARN DANCES!” Their responses offer a further demonstration of James’ transformational skills as a teacher: safe exploration and celebration of self; the possibilities inherent within collective action; the joy of a barn dance. Beyond pedagogical outcomes, these reflections also allow me to appreciate our older selves. Damn, we’re certainly wiser twenty years later, but still funny and ridiculous. As I write, I am happily crying my way through a nostalgia tsunami born from taking joy in who we were and joy in who we’ve become. I belly laugh and start a group text message with them, even though I should be finishing this essay so that I can start writing a grant related to the role of community in contemporary performance. I also thank god that I never have to wear upholstery fabric again. My classmates’ memories make me feel more centered in the world. Deep breath. Deep breath. I sit with love.

My god, there was so much love. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt love’s presence so intensely and abundantly since. Perhaps the most radical and difficult-to-theorize piece of that summer’s pedagogy was the unabashed, unapologetic pursuit and realization of collective love. But then again, when you are co-evolving with one another, when your mistakes are named and supported and teased, when your inner multitudes are allowed to reveal themselves, when you can ask for and receive the care you need, love of yourself and of others can abound. While many good teachers transform students’ intellect and creativity, a summer with James taught me that a great teacher transforms students’ spirits, their very personhood, their capacity to give and receive love.

The Winedale Summer of 2001 did not create any certified (or is it certifiable?) Early Modern scholars. Hell, I went totes rogue and wrote a dissertation about minoritarian communities and the avant garde, but a few of us still tangle with the Bard upon occasion. In fact, one of us worked at Winedale alongside James for thirteen years. Amongst us, there are a number of artists/directors. We’ve also become a professor of physical therapy, a lawyer, a librarian. Many are parents, producing children with truly outstanding hair. One of us leads a performance ensemble for individuals with developmental differences. A handful of us are teachers, and several have journeyed through PhDlandia and into academia. One of us crafted with Martha Stewart. There are writers with published works. There’s a genuine jiujitsu master. We’ve got a nurse, a cop, a musician, an international programs manager, and several business folks. For the most part, our lives moved in Bardless directions, but if invited, there is no doubt in my mind that we would all be up for a round of volleyball in a mostly mown pasture. Up for an excuse to love one another.

This past August, a few of us gathered at Winedale for the summer’s last weekend of performances. The big pecan trees outside the barn greeted us. We spelunked through the barn and over the stage. We crossed the surrounding fields. We walked down the farm-to-market road running through the property. We laughed, amazed by one another, just like we were amazed twenty years ago. Wandering over to the Winedale dorm where we lived all those months, we commented on all the additional safety features. That extra staircase would have been perfect prank infrastructure. We snuck through the blessedly air-conditioned classrooms where we sometimes rehearsed and where we built our costumes. I spotted the very majestic, if I do say so myself, burgundy-crushed-velvet-that-was-actually-probably-upholstery-fabric robe that I sewed for my Countess costume. (If there is ever a Winedale costume sale, I call dibs on that robe. For real. I will fight you.)

Later that evening before the show, we lazed about at the picnic tables outside the barn. At one point, Clari and I sat on a bench by James. Together at Winedale again with James in the dappled evening light glowing through a canopy of pecan leaves. Of course, after twenty plus years, we are all different. Some now more gray than others, but honestly all still very good-looking. More learnéd, more experiencéd, more aware of the gift we were given, gifts catalyzed by James. And as I gazed around the tables, taking in the alumni gathered, I was overwhelmed by the palpable presence of loyalty and respect, friendship and delight, transformation and interconnectedness generated by James’ life’s work. Humbled and amazed, yet again, by how the very form of his teaching created what his students shared forward. To root the moment in a tangle of language from three of Shakespeare's works that transformed my own life: A real-life band of brothers who keep their friends under their own life’s key, moving hand-in-hand, not one before another.