James Loehlin Sculpts in Time

Friday, February 24, 2023

This special issue in honor of James Loehlin celebrates the over twenty years he has spent as the director of Shakespeare at Winedale, an intensive learning through performance program run through the English department at the University of Texas at Austin. The lives of each of the writers contributing to this special issue have been touched by James’s exceptional brand of teaching and yet each represents just a small distillation of the multitudes of other students’ lives he has helped to shape so fundamentally. Carra Martinez was one of James’s first students at Winedale and has gone on to become a theater practitioner; Paul Woodruff taught James when he was an undergraduate at UT and James taught his daughter in turn at Winedale; and Matt Davies took a new direction with his professional acting career to work with James at Winedale, play King Lear, and complete a Ph.D. at UT (where James, also an English professor at UT, served on his committee), before going on to run an MFA program at Mary Baldwin University that shares many of Winedale’s founding principles. As the editor for this special issue, I have also had the luck and honor of being James’s student at Winedale for two summers (2003 and 2004) and his assistant director for two more (2009 and 2010). Now I’m an English professor specializing in early modern drama. I thus claim editor’s privilege to add my own reflections to this celebration. You can find James’s response to these essays in the issue’s first entry.

Now that you’ve read Martinez, Woodruff, and Davies’s untimely reviews of James Loehlin at Winedale, I want to just briefly reinforce two major themes running through this issue: love and trust. James has fostered a learning culture in which the program itself makes students feel loved and trusted, and I think the ways in which these shine through in the students’ performances of Shakespeare’s plays under James’s influence reflects this larger, deeper dimension of Winedale. A third important element crisscrossing these two themes is James’s quietness, however—a part of his professorial and directorial persona that is as difficult to convey as it is powerfully definitive of and inextricable from his special alchemy of love and trust. This magical pedagogy inimitably gives students the space to grow; it infuses the sunshine, wind, rain, and soil at Shakespeare at Winedale and it helps fill the Barn with joy.

It's 2010, and I’m standing next to James at the entrance to the Barn, watching the audience watch the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth, when I turn to see a student quietly approaching. He whispers to me that he thinks he’s seen a snake in the stage right back seating area. I move silently behind the audience to the unoccupied rows of seats, hoping it is just a branch in the dark, when I see a small snake slithering slowly towards the stage, about twenty feet from the front row. I take off my hat and throw it a few feet in front of the snake, hoping to redirect it back out of the Barn away from the audience, but it instead darts more quickly towards an elderly gentleman in the front row wearing shorts. I run forward into the audience, stuttering, trying to summon the courage to yell loud enough to stop the performance but my mind and tongue are jammed—when James suddenly appears by my side, announcing in a clear and commanding voice, “Everyone, there is a snake in the audience, please stand up on your seats.” They do so immediately. The small serpent, illuminated now, is clearly a coral snake. It is heading straight towards the stage where Lady Macbeth, the doctor, and the waiting-woman are frozen in place.

James: “Casey, go get me a…”

Me: “Shovel!?” (childhood memories resurfacing of adults dealing with rattlesnakes at my home)

James: “Yes!”

I turn to get the shovel and standing before me is a student offering me his prop battle axe (heavy metal but blunted) with a smile on his face as though he’s waited his entire life for this moment. I hand the ax to James, and he swiftly beheads the snake. The head inches towards the stage for a few more seconds, then falls still. As I carry the remains of one of the deadliest snakes in the world on the flat side of a battle ax to the woods behind the Barn, everyone returns to their seats and the doctor delivers their next line: “Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles.” The audience erupts with laughter and the play goes on.

Same summer. I’m playing catch with a frisbee with James and another student in the field next to the small lakeside dormitory where the students sleep and take their meals for the two and half months they live on the property. James is running after the frisbee that seems just out of his reach, giving it his all even in such a simple activity in a rare hour off between the day’s activities. Just as he grasps the frisbee in his outstretched hand, he trips over a small protrusion of waterworks hidden by tall grass. Taking a hard fall, James is dazed from hitting his head and, as I run up to him on the ground, I see that his head, face, and hands are covered in an alarming amount of blood. When James gets back from a quick trip to the nearby ER, I am relieved that we can admit to each other that the first thought we both had on seeing the blood was how we might recreate the effect in that summer’s performance of Macbeth.

It's May of 2004, in the lead-up to my second summer as a student at Winedale. James has posted a question to the pre-summer listserv about Macbeth and free will: if the witches had not delivered their prophecy to Macbeth, would he still have usurped the throne and become a tyrant? After the online debate goes back and forth between my fellow classmates for a while, James offers a different tack. He notes that, for him, what is most interesting from a learning-through-performance perspective is exploring the action and poetry generated by everything Macbeth does after the witches spark the action. He suggests that Macbeth was cursed with the mind of a poet and asks us to consider these lines as evidence:

                Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’rooky wood,
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

Reading these lines through James’s mind, I could see the trees behind the Barn at dusk berooked and a crow flying towards those same woods in which, years later, I would dispose of a more-than-scotch’d snake.

Later that summer, in the Barn, James speaks with the student playing Macbeth about this darkly poetic facility. The student was exploring more of Macbeth’s warrior side, but James helps him slow down and explore more grief than wrath in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. I had not felt much of a connection to Shakespeare’s tragedies up to that point, preferring the festive life-exuberance of his comedies. But as I stand there in the Barn listening to James, a crack opens in the language of tragedy through which its dark beauty began to shine forth.

Every performance that summer, as one of many unnamed soldiers outside the Barn adding offstage battle sights and sounds to the onstage action,  I have just enough time as I run around to my next entrance to pause at the side of the Barn and listen to Macbeth deliver that speech, soaking in the poetry James helped me hear for the first time.

James is not a lover of all poetry, however. Each morning at Winedale, the students circle up at sunrise on the porch in front of the dorm to walk with James out to the nearby field and play a sport such as soccer or ultimate frisbee. Afterwards, they circle up again, sing one of the many songs that have accrued to the Winedale pre-meal repertory over the years, eat breakfast, and then head over to the Barn for the morning’s play. On reaching the Barn each morning, before anything else, however, the students sweep the entire stage, upstairs and down, and audience area. This beloved tradition, meant to help wake up the space and bond the students to it as caretakers and guests, is often accompanied by music played over the Barn’s speakers. Unfortunately, one the songs added to the mix each year is Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” Unfortunately for James, that is. You see, at some point way back in the hazy mists of Winedale history, some students at some time claimed they heard James say that he hates “Jessie’s Girl.” In a perverse show of affection for James (if not Rick Springfield), those students made it part of that summer’s Barn sweeping mix. A handful of students often return to Winedale for a second summer each year, and a few of these added “Jessie’s Girl” to that next summer’s Barn mix. And then a few more added it the next summer. And so on to this very day and quite possibly (hopefully) to the crack of doom. I can see as if it were yesterday: it’s 2003, my first summer at Winedale, the warm morning air is already thick with cottony humidity, “Jessie’s Girl” is blasting over the speakers, I’m standing on stage, broom handle in my hand, and I look up to see James standing in the middle of the audience area with an expression on his face that I could not to this day say whether it was a smile of pride, a cringe of bemusement, or a grimace masking the pain of a soul in torment.

It's December, 2022, and I’m sweeping the exposed foundation of my basement as Chance the Rapper blasts from a Bluetooth speaker. Setting aside the broom, I kneel down, grab another vinyl flooring plank, slide it along next to the previous plank, lay it down flat, and knock it into place with a rubber mallet. My wife, Katy, also an early modern scholar, is measuring the angles of the floor under a closet door. Our basement flooded months ago after our water heater pumped a hundred gallons of water into the carpet and it had to be torn out. This was a play area for my stepdaughter, Waverly, and my daughter, Viola, and Katy and I have decided to put a new floor in ourselves as a surprise Christmas present for the girls.

I walk over to my workbench, cut the next plank to length with a jigsaw, and as I kneel down to slide and hammer it into its place, I look up and I see my classmates in 2003, from my perspective kneeling next to the stage left front pillar, at work putting in the new stage at the Winedale Barn. The old stage needed to be replaced and our class’s bonding activity for the first week was putting in a new one. We toiled away each day in that Texas heat laying in each plank and, because I had some background with carpentry, another student and I took over making the special cuts around corners and where the planks meet the stage pillars. We’d go cut the angles with a jigsaw and help slide the new tongue-in-groove plank into its place with those that came before it. After four days or so, we were done, and we had bonded marvelously as a class. I remember being amazed at the trust James showed in us, letting us build this fundamental thing that so many future students would depend on.

Now it’s weeks after we built the Barn stage, a UT fire-and-life-safety person is installing railings on the stage staircases to bring them up to code, which means we can’t do our final full dress run through Julius Caesar in the Barn. It’s a few days before the season opens for the public. Because we can’t be in the Barn, James suggests we perform Caesar outside. We would begin with the first scene in the grassy area next to the Barn and then each new scene group would run ahead to another area, improvising new locations scene by scene as we progressed along nearly the entire Winedale property. I can still see Casca skulking out from behind a crape-merdle thick with pink blossoms and waterdrops from a recent downpour, death on her brow as she walks to meet me and our fellow conspirators to plot the death of Caesar. James participates in the crowd scenes with full gusto, crying out upon Brutus and the rest. This wandering through nature opened up whole new worlds within the play for us and it left an indelible mark on our performance even after we returned it to the Barn.

A singular event can become a ritual over time; an expediency in response to building safety codes can become a sacred rite honoring the power of nature at Shakespeare at Winedale. After living outside the US for a few years, I finally return to Winedale in 2007 to see the next generation of students play in the Barn. Talking with some of them after their performance of Antony and Cleopatra, one asks me which play we had done our “peripatetic” with. I look at her blankly, unsure of what she is asking me. Each summer, she explains, the class takes one play out of the Barn and performs it across the Winedale property. The peripatetic, the student tells me, is one of the most beloved Winedale traditions. When I returned as assistant director at Winedale in 2009 and 2010, the peripatetic was thoroughly woven into the DNA of the program and it is still going strong today.

James Loehlin sculpts in time. He is a quiet, intelligent, uncompromisingly sincere man with an ear for Shakespeare’s verse like a tuning fork and a heart that insists on giving students the space to find themselves and grow. He sets each day’s rotation of tasks, like making Gatorade or restocking the ice supply; he motivates the students through ensemble-building improv games; he guides scene work with questions and challenges and insights about the meaning of a word or line; he always knows if you’re word perfect and can probably recite most of Shakespeare’s plays by memory; he raises money and rubs elbows with local donors; he laughs till he cries with delight and without a trace of derision, very occasionally, when a slip on a line creates a special new level of comedy (like when, on a first read-through of Much Ado, in my role as Balthazar I referred to myself as “an ill finger,” or when, in a performance of Julius Caesar, Cinna the Poet was informed by one of the mob attacking him that he would “bang me a bear for that”); he continues the tradition of never sitting down at Winedale except for meal breaks, despite the serious complaints from his back; he spends two-and-a-half scorching months in isolation in the beautiful Texas countryside with fifteen or so students directing one of the most intense learning programs in the world, peerlessly. The bonds he fosters rather than forces each summer last a lifetime. Winedale was my college experience for me, and I’m still close friends with many of my classmates to this day—much closer than most other high school, college, or graduate school friends. After becoming a stepfather and the birth of my daughter and marriage to my wife, the happiest day of my life was the day I got the email from James telling me I would be joining the Shakespeare at Winedale summer class of 2003.

James Loehlin sculpts in time because, in addition to helping to shape our lives through the performance of Shakespeare plays, he fosters the growth of new traditions that each incoming class can experience anew for the first time. Somehow he leaves the space clear for each group to come in and feel as though they have discovered a new frontier even as they are made deeply aware of the fact that they are carrying on beloved traditions.

James Loehlin quietly sculpts in time because he always does, never simply says, yet the program over the years continuously speaks for him. I’ve never heard James brag. Anyone that knows him will laugh at the mere thought, and perhaps this is why we all brag about him any chance we get.

James Loehlin has been sculpted in time because when I first met him he was a new professor embarking on his career, quiet to the point of hesitancy, and nearly overcome by allergies as he gave my spring Winedale class pointers on a scene we were struggling with—and now his quietness is fierce, confident, blended with good humor and foresight, the years of experience at Winedale shaping the man that would shape so many.

Tell me, where can I find a professor like that?