From Texas Hill Country to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley: The Living Legacy of James Loehlin’s Approach to Studying Shakespeare Through Performance

Friday, February 24, 2023

“How would you like to play King Lear at Winedale this summer?” James Loehlin asked me out of the blue. “I’m half his age, literally,” I spluttered. “Well, you’d be twice the students’ ages, which is perfect. Consider it practice,” James concluded, bringing negotiations to a close with that characteristic blend of unimpeachable logic and wry humor. This brief conversation happened in James’s office on the University of Texas at Austin (UT) campus in the late spring of 2006, when I was a Teaching Assistant in his Drama of Modernism class. Having been a professional actor in the UK for 15 years, three of them spent touring five-person Shakespeare productions around American campuses, including UT’s, with the Actors From The London Stage company, Austin had hooked me in that way it does, and I had enrolled in the English PhD program in 2004. But now, with a Master’s degree in view, I had resolved to return home. Taking on the formidable challenge of the Shakespeare at Winedale summer program seemed an appropriately outsized way to bring my Texan adventure to a close.

Founded in 1970 by the legendary Jim “Doc” Ayres, and housed at the Texas Winedale Historical Center on land donated by the equally legendary philanthropist Ima Hogg (who did not, in fact, have a sister named Ura), the Shakespeare at Winedale Summer Class is a ten-week intensive that teaches Shakespeare’s plays through performance. Working up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, students with little or no acting experience rehearse three to four plays in repertory for 24 public performances in an open-sided 1880 German hay-barn. In July. In Texas. Staging Lear against the backdrop of a mythic British winter against the actual backdrop of a sweltering Texan summer might pose challenges more physically hazardous than those offered by Shakespeare’s comedies Two Gentleman of Verona and As You Like It that made up our season, but Winedalers pride themselves on being tough. According to the 2022 Shakespeare at Winedale website, successful students combine “an eagerness to learn, and a willingness to play” with “a high level of dedication and stamina.”[i] Bard Camp on the Brazos is not only pedagogically enriching, it transforms young lives. But not mine. I wasn’t young; I had already climbed my mountain. I was going home. Right?

Cut to 2010. I was now headed to the Shenandoah Valley in south-west Virginia, my new “home,” a PhD almost in hand, to take up an assistant professorship in the Shakespeare and Performance (S&P) graduate program at Mary Baldwin University (MBU). James had just finished a semester’s teaching as a guest instructor at MBU, cementing the relationship between programs and tipping the scales with wise advice and good bourbon the night before my final interview. I was hired with a specific charge, alongside teaching acting and directing, to help redesign the pre-professional Master of Fine Arts (MFA) terminal degree that capstones our double degree three-year program. While our Master of Letters (MLitt) degree had pronounced success in producing educators and scholars, the MFA curriculum felt unfocused, schismatic, and lacking a sense of ensemble. Over the course of two years, the core faculty constructed what we now call the MFA Company model, a third-year intensive during which matriculated MLitt students form a troupe to select, develop, perform, and write about a season of five early modern and early modern-inflected shows. Built upon the foundational pillars of collaboration, multidisciplinarity, and entrepreneurialism, this Renaissance education in Renaissance drama aims to prepare multi-hyphenate graduates to enter the job market as theatre practitioners, educators (at both the grade school and college level), or a blend of both.

While the goals of a pre-professional training are clearly different to those of a largely undergraduate humanities program, I was struck by how often during the design process I found myself repeating phrases like, “What they do at Winedale…” or “This reminds me of Winedale.” Teaching in this stable model for ten years now, I have an even clearer appreciation of the remarkable impact of Winedale on my thinking about theatre training. Like Time in The Winter’s Tale “slid[ing] o’er sixteen years,” I use this deep retrospective as an opportunity to identify strands of Winedale DNA encoded in the body of our program. As one of a team of architects, the company blueprint was itself a model of collaboration and different perspectives. But the undeniable resemblances between our two programs speaks, at the very least, to a shared vision of the power of ensemble theatre training. For organizational ease, I will gather these genetic strands around S&P’s core pillars that I mention above, with a focus on perhaps the most important and complex element: collaboration and leadership.

Collaborators Are Not Born, They’re Made

Theatre generally self-identifies as the most collaborative of the fine arts, although the very elements that constitute this claim also compromise it. Gathering a varied assortment of creatives with healthy egos and strong opinions to apply their specialized training in service of a singular vision is traditionally predicated on the presiding presence of the director. As Robert Cohen notes, academic theatre offers an even greater challenge to collaboration: “competition for approval, grades and other advantages, often affects, or perhaps even infects, most beginning students in theatre.”[ii] The increasing infiltration of neoliberal individualism into the academy makes collaboration more often a goal than a reality. Since the S&P articulated a strong commitment to nurturing an environment within the MFA Company model that values teamwork as well as individual growth, I brought to the design table critical lessons from Winedale regarding collaboration and leadership, which “are two sides of the same animal,’ notes Cohen, adding, “And you can’t take them apart without killing the animal.”[iii]

Dance choreographer Twyla Tharp famously noted that “collaborators aren’t born, they’re made […] one day at a time; through practice, through attention, through discipline.”[iv] This notion of training is central to the Winedale ethos, and the work begins long before students set foot in the barn. During a pre-season conference course, students engage in an online exchange of ideas and responses to individual texts, characters, and themes, while also learning how to identify dramaturgical and production needs for particular plays (always “plays,” never shows). A key feature of this pre-production element is the willingness to take ownership of aspects other than one’s own roles. In a notably similar pre-production set-up, recently graduated S&P MLitt students spend a three-week May Term, under the guidance of faculty, debating and deciding upon critical components of their future company: from season selection and casting of most of the plays to populating the many committees that keep the operation running to articulating a mission statement and – always most contentious – the company name. On top of which – as if they didn’t need more work – the ensemble also engages in company building, training in devising and physical theatre approaches that work alongside textual exploration to forge a common language and community practices. With a clearly defined mission and organizational structure, students returning from a short summer recess with their own mountains to climb hit the steep ground running.

Facing a similarly challenging terrain, Winedalers also hit the ground at pace and armed with brooms. Once on site, students take ownership of their communal space for the summer, initially in a wholesale cleaning, and then through daily chores: from sweeping the barn every morning to repairing pieces of the stage in the afternoon to shooing out the occasional recalcitrant snake before a show. And inside the process, they learn to take care of each other: as coffee or Gatorade-makers for the group, or line-testers and water buddies for a designated companion. (At Winedale, the fear of dehydration is almost as tangible as not meeting James’s expectations for DLP—Dead Letter Perfect—performances.) Within a schedule dictated as much by the heat as by scarcity of time, outdoor morning rehearsals, afternoon projects indoors, and evening runs in the barn are interspersed with communal activities: daybreak sports that serve as great levelers - literally in the case of Ultimate Frisbee, as my aching shoulder reminds me – intellectual guessing games like James’s beloved “Botticelli” that refresh a flagging mind, and songs in the circle before every meal. (Winedalers don’t sing just for their supper.) The need to maintain energy through the rigors of each day even dictates that during work hours everyone remains standing, save for when blocked in a scene to sit—which might explain why King Lear chose to spend so much of Act 1 on his throne. Even with his chronically bad back, James is always the last man standing.

If such a highly-structured regimen smacks of boot camp, one fundamental difference is that everyone wants to be there and is committed to the ensemble and to the work. Another is that the organization and hierarchy a healthy ensemble requires to operate is achieved through respect and responsibility rather than coercion and competition. Although the undeniable head, and in many ways the absolute authority, of the Winedale program, James couldn’t be more different from the bawling staff sergeant or bullying corrections officer of boot camp tradition. Soft-voiced and ceaselessly supportive, James re-centers the role of the director as a side-coach rather than a central authority.

Preparing to write this retrospective, I reached out to the 2006 troupe for their own recollections of a monumental summer. The recurring noun associated with James’s directorial style is trust. “James didn’t teach us at Winedale by grandstanding or insisting on an ironclad directorial vision. Instead he would have us students do the initial staging of our scenes, with free rein to bring our own ideas and vision to the play,” recalls Rotimi Agbabiaka, who played a malevolent Edmund and an urbane Jaques that season. Exposing a misconception that Winedale shows are self-directed, a perception that frequently follows a collaborative rehearsal approach, Rotimi notes that James “would ultimately shape those initial offerings into greater coherence,” before adding, “but his trust in us students, and his encouragement to make the plays our own, had an immense impact on me.” Jerry Fugit, who, as the clown Touchstone in As You Like It, was tasked with making pancakes and mustard a viable punchline, recalls the sense of shared responsibility creative collaboration generates: “Because James emphasized that we were responsible for the choices we made in our performances, he also taught me about our responsibilities to each other. We didn’t want to let ourselves and James down, but we also didn’t want to let our fellow students down.” Sid Mahanta, who played the challenging role of Edgar/Poor Tom in King Lear, recalls the “trust [James] places in his students—through experimentation with language, and […] play—to find their own way out of an impossible speech, a tricky scene, or a strange romance.” Finally, David Boss, whose eye-gouging skills as Cornwall are the stuff of legend, also reminds us that being a gentle director does not mean letting actors off the hook. James “brings out the best in everyone,” Boss (always “Boss”) concludes, “by simply expecting the best.”

What James brought out in me that summer was a deeper appreciation of the collaborative director. As my teaching mentor at UT, James once noted that a successful seminar is one in which the professor says least; through Winedale, he taught me that the same rule applies to directors. From the moment the cohort meets to define its identity to the crossing of the last ‘t’ of the company book by its peer editors, our S&P MFA students participate in an endless discourse: identifying issues, offering solutions, and making decisions through debate and negotiation, assertion and compromise. Producers as much as instructors, faculty guides and advises, giving students enough rope to run with their ideas but not enough to tie themselves up in knots. By taking greater control of the means of production, student collaborators begin to acquire the agency of independent thinkers and artists. Above all, we have learnt that when collaboration fails, a company is only as strong as its weakest link; yet when it succeeds, it is always greater than the sum of its parts.

The Arthritis Of Specialization

Despite claiming collaboration and versatility, the predominant approach to studying theatre through discrete and closely-guarded training methods is far more likely to reinforce disciplinarity and individualism, what the French call the “arthritis of specialization.” Yet in a Clyde Fitch Report article arguing for a more generalist education even at the graduate level, Scott Walters reminds us that, “It isn’t until relatively recently that artists began to be encouraged to specialize. Education has carved that idea in marble.”[v] Our innovative Company model, alive to the ancient heritage of actors as storytellers, influenced by early modern theatre practices, and anticipating the entrepreneurial expectations of the new theatrical economy, encourages students to complicate the mechanistic question at the root of actor training, “What do I want?” by also asking, "What do we need?" What our Company model needs, and fosters, are multifaceted theatremakers rather than specialists for hire. I didn’t always feel this way. While I maintained the right to pursue a dual, rather than dueling, career as an actor and director, working in a system that favored type casting and protectionism made me inherently skeptical of multidisciplinary practitioners. Why risk being an unemployable jack-of-all-trades when it is safer to be the master of one? Winedale taught me the value of the well-rounded, multifaceted theatremaker, both to the ensemble and to their own artistry.

While James selects and pre-casts the plays, almost all the production needs in a Winedale season are met by the students who self-identify relevant skill sets. Students with crafting experience, for instance, might well find themselves constructing a body with a detachable head or a bloody bandage with eye-holes. The only elements requiring outside assistance are costuming – students repair, modify, or make all their characters’ clothes, which requires lots of sewing lessons – and combat, which reduces the risk of Charles inadvertently winning the wrestling match by sending Orlando to Emergency Care. If a student occasionally finds themselves in a role outside their comfort zone – a Feste who prefers to sing in the shower, or a Launce slightly nervous of dogs – the ensemble will always be there to support and find a solution: a four-part harmony, say, or a handy pet-sitter.

Rather than casting for a preconceived concept, then, a Winedale production shapes itself around the skills of the cast. Parth Gejji, a moving Gloucester in King Lear, recalls how James would incorporate “new elements into the play based on the students' strengths,” and he cites as an example our company’s choral talent. Combining Christian with pagan Celtic elements, our notably hymnal Lear incorporated the Welsh national anthem, “Land Of My Fathers,” sung in Welsh: or Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau: or, phonetically, “My hen laid a haddock.” As the company member who harkens from Wales, I can attest that teaching Hen Wlad to American students will either make or break an ensemble. But it can also forge unique theatre. The bodies of Lear and Cordelia being carried into the night through the barn’s back doors, to the refrain “Gwlad! Gwlad!” (Wales, Wales) accompanied by the hissing of cicadas and the distant rumble of thunder, is a dramatic scenario that won’t often be repeated in the heart of Texas.

Pursuing the kind of bespoke dramatic experience offered by Winedale, our S&P program is structured to ensure that MFA students cannot rely on one discipline. In the MFA’s four production genres—a one-hour Education show, a brace of portable small-scales (all these productions tour), a guest-directed Blackfriars show, and a company-directed Renaissance show —students twice perform a major function in their designated Concentration: whether in Acting, Education, Dramaturgy, or Directing (which includes musical direction, fight direction, costume designing, and the like). For the other two shows, students rotate through a different concentration per genre. Company members also serve on an average of two committees, which cover such critical offstage aspects as: publicity & marketing, touring, fundraising and hospitability, editorial work on the company book (comprised of MFA theses), and production and stage management. Students receive an individual evaluation for their concentration and a company grade as collaborators. By developing critical skills in stage management and design, movement and music, marketing and publicity, archiving and editing, not only do artists for hire evolve into members of the ensemble, they also become more marketable.

For All Markets

Making postgraduates employable is necessarily the raison d’etre of the MFA Company model and of the entrepreneurial spirit it fosters.  Rather than preparing students to relinquish control of their careers to the cattle call, the casting director, and the agent, we aim to empower them with the agency to make their own opportunities - to contribute their unique skill sets to existing troupes or to launch their own companies. Above all, we offer our graduates the administrative as well as artistic wherewithal to survive, and hopefully thrive, in the current marketplace. While Winedale is in the business of shaping young lives rather than launching early careers, so many lessons students take away from Winedale apply to those we seek to instill in our graduating Shakespeareans: among them, a love of language, a joy in ensemble, and the courage to challenge expectations.

Our 2006 alums celebrate how Winedale shaped their future careers in surprising ways. For professional writer Sid Mahanta, wrestling with King Lear’s “unimaginably weighty themes” exposed the “potentials of language and art in the often-staid world of mainstream journalism.” Parth Gejji, who switched from an Engineering to English major, considers the language skills he now uses as a lawyer “as the same ones that James teaches at Shakespeare at Winedale. My job is essentially reading [a] text closely to derive its meaning and intent.”  Jerry Fugit, focusing less on Shakespeare’s language than the way its staging challenges are met, identifies how “collaboration and collective ownership of the performance” impacted his work in labor law: “Many of the choices in my life have been motivated by searching for people who want to work on problems the same way we worked on them at Winedale.” To some, performing Shakespeare leaves a personal imprint: the nerdy “love of old texts” Meredith Mills treasures, or the capacity to be vulnerable in public forums that Steph Bates retains. For others, like Kan Yan, the impact is cosmic: a greater appreciation “of art and its relationship to life [is] a sensibility that has enriched my life and the lives of all of those who I am close to.” And for those who, like Rotimi Agbabiaka, become professional performers, Winedale’s non-specialized, anti-hierarchical, pre-mechanist training, built on “kindness and [a] commitment to playing,” produces theatre makers in the Renaissance mold. Just as our students might enter the MFA program as self-identifying performers or teachers, only to leave as director-choreographers, or educator-dramaturgs, or tragical-comical-historical-pastoral actor-musicians, so Winedale, Rotimi writes, “gave me the courage to make a career as an actor, writer, and director. And this year,” he adds, perhaps most proudly, “I began teaching theatre at James’s alma mater, Stanford.”

It is precisely this circularity of influence, this exchange of theatrical DNA, that continues to enrich and enliven both Shakespeare communities. Given our shared values and practices, it is hardly surprising that some of S&P’s most successful students are Winedale alums. As I write, two recent Winedalers are not only burning up the MLitt with their indefatigable energy and enthusiasm, they also won coveted spots as acting fellows in last year’s ASC summer/fall season, one going on to earn their first professional contract in A Christmas Carol this past winter. In turn, some of our graduating MFAs head (or return) to UT to pursue PhD studies that apply the lessons of ensemble and practical stagecraft to critical thinking and literary analysis, pushing the boundaries, challenging expectations, extending their reach. Who knows? A Winedale-S&P alum might even go on to edit an online journal of untimely reviews that offers a forum to appraise the kind of practitioner-scholar that both programs extol. These hybrids get around. Yet what clearly holds us together, what binds our distant strands, is James, whose passionate commitment to the pedagogical value of Shakespeare in production and enduring investment in each cohort offers a role model for his students and a roadmap for their future successes. It takes a colossus to bestride the 1500 miles between Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and the Texas Hill Country, but they make ‘em big in Texas. And none comes bigger than James Loehlin.


[i] “Summer Class, course description,” accessed 12/14/2022.

[ii] Cohen, Robert. 2011. Working Together in Theatre: Collaboration and Leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 47.

[iii] Cohen, 31.

[iv] Tharp, Twyla. 2009. The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. New York: Simon and Schuster, 12-13.

[v] Walters, Scott. 2013. “A New Education for a New Theatre,” www.clydefitchreport.