My Star Student

Friday, February 24, 2023

As I walked into my classroom on the first day, I heard a student say loudly to a circle of friends, “They told us the professors might look like students, but this is ridiculous.” In 1981 I did look ridiculously young for a professor, but this was not the last disruptive remark from that student. The course was a first-year seminar in Plan II on the philosophy of tragedy—which, to these students must have meant traffic accidents. Luckily there was also a student in the room who was serious about theater. He was tall, with dark hair and a compelling voice. He soon became the center of gravity of the main part of the seminar, while the traffic accident segment revolved in its own orbit till mid-terms. But after that, this segment was drawn down into the class, thanks largely to the gravity pull of the star student, whose name was James Loehlin. I came to know James further through Plan II philosophy the next year, when I encouraged him to prepare to apply for Marshall and Rhodes scholarship applications, and I watched him start a group that produced plays. We became friends. 

Fast forward twenty years. It is 2001, and James has just taken the reins of Shakespeare at Winedale. I have started keeping a journal with notes on plays I see. The notes I have on performances coached by James are often glowing. I will give examples below. I have similar glowing memories of the early years of the program, when it was led by UT professor of English Doc Ayres. I began attending, and loving, Winedale in 1974, after which it only got better and better.  The two glows are different of course, but I won't try to compare them here. This paper is about James.  Luckily, I started making notes on the plays I saw starting just before James began leading the program at Winedale. Those notes enable me to write this report.

The plays in 2001 included The Comedy of Errors and Henry V.  In the comedy, on the afternoon I saw it, there was a joyful chase scene with the entire cast popping in and out through every possible orifice around the stage. Suddenly Henry V strutted onto the stage, shouting “Once more into the breach, dear friends . . .”  He was interrupted by James, who came on stage to say, “Not now, later.” Later, that evening, Henry was in full flower in his own play. My notes describe him as “young, pink-cheeked, soft of voice, but very authoritative, and very fetching.” Everything Henry achieves in that play he achieves by speaking fetchingly, and James brought that out in his student. After the play there was the traditional celebration mingling students and audience members over lemonade and cheese with crackers. Watching the students interact with each other and with their friends, I felt how much joy the class was taking in the plays under James’ direction, and how much they felt loved by James and his wife Laurel, who was a constant comfort to the students. The class gave James a pair of loving sonnets as the season ended.

Love continued to be a theme in James’ work at Winedale. The next year (2002) we saw the two Henry IV plays, along with Twelfth Night and A Winter’s Tale. On the Henry plays, I find these notes: “The Henrys are a youth-age love story with a jealous rival (Bolingbroke) and the underlying sense of mutual exploitation that comes whenever youth mates with age. Well done by young actors who can act and are also linked in some way.” Yes, James brought the students at Winedale into a warmly linked community that showed its strength in every play. Our daughter Kate was Paulina, the most powerful presence in the play, firm but with warmth for all. James elicited a superb performance from her (I thought), and in the Henrys she had a bouncing quality I had not seen in her since she was small.  A delightful Poins, and a good season all around.

Love continued to draw students into exciting performances at Winedale under James’ influence, leading to a powerful experience I had at Winedale in 2004. Audiences are always drawn to lovers, and in the Macbeth of that year the leads came across as deeply in love. “Loving these lovers,” my notes say, “we are horrified to see them sink deeper and deeper into atrocities.” That was wonderful, but The Tempest left me deeply moved. This was the first time I had seen Bob Jones and James working together (aside from a brief moment in a classroom when the first-year Bob volunteered to read the part of Romeo in a brief scene). Bob was now Prospero. When Prospero spoke of his frequent thoughts about his death, I wrote, “It was a profoundly melancholy leave taking in sorrow for the sins of mankind, but more, it was truly forgiving. Though his anger at Caliban had been entirely real, he forgave Caliban at the end, giving him his coral necklace as lord now of the island, restoring Caliban, as Prospero could be restored to Milan, granting him in a lingering look, his humanity. I have never been so moved in the theater.” So I wrote in 2004. As Prospero, Bob had offered love even to Caliban! So strong was James’ influence.

The next year, in 2005, Bob Jones was Hamlet. “A captivating ‘antic disposition’,” I wrote in my notes at the time, “and strong throughout. Every word of the soliloquies went home. I found it thrilling—the gorgeous language, the earnest young beautiful cast.” Then there was a lovely performance of the Dream. “All very athletic,” I wrote, “very funny, with broad visual gags, but the poetry always triumphed." Thanks for that, James. So often the poetry is lost in performance. The third play was the odious Taming of the Shrew. No human being should ever be tamed. But in this version of the play, Kate and Petruchio “had so much in common that I believed they were lovers.” They played the last scene straight that time, but, the week before, they had brought back Christopher Sly to wake up as if this had all been his dream. It’s a hard play to end. But James had somehow infused love into this loveless script.

Sometimes, the process went into reverse. As You Like It seems like a play about love, but it is really more about role-playing, almost a mockery of true love. In 2006 I saw a production of As You Like It at Winedale that my notes call “totally transporting.” Rosalind and Orlando were both superb. Interestingly, they did not choose to connect as a couple at the end. They, like the audience, must not have been convinced by their own highly theatrical romance. That “first sight” concept fades on experience. They must get to know each other absent all disguises. This, I suppose, is what went through the actors’ heads under James’ influence: love should be love, not a game. The next day I saw Lear with Matt Radford (a pro) in the lead. Rotimi Agbabiaka (now a professional performer) was a “fierce believable” Edmund; the night before he had been a fine Jacques. How many pros have been nurtured as Winedale by Doc or James? I hope someone keeps count.

Of course there was more than love to James’ influence on students at Winedale. He has a gift for opening up possibilities for students to invent their own new ways of performing a play. In 2009 I saw Cymbeline twice in one weekend. The students somehow made each scene believable, “in spite of the ludicrous plot, which must be intended to be humorous,” as I wrote in my notes. There’s fine poetry in the play including of course William Shakespeare’s finest lyric, “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” which melts out hearts even though we know the speaker hates the man over whose corpse she is weeping. A comedy of errors meets a tragedy of violent warfare. Casey Caldwell was assistant director and has gone on to fine things in academia and theater. That same weekend I watched Richard III, also twice. Cody Chua in the lead was impossibly good, I thought: “totally at home in his dialogue, charming and evil and tormented all at once.  A fine talent, Cody was always in character, even in minor parts in other plays.” James had freed him up to be his own kind of Richard. 

Fast forward again to 2014, and a performance of Troilus and Cressida, a favorite play of mine, but famously difficult. Is it comedy or tragedy or romance or an early stab at theater of the absurd? Or all four of those at once? This play was the students’ favorite of the season; James had given them the freedom to enliven the play with a special absurd zing. In my notes, I wrote: “Their innovation: Nestor and Odysseus ambush Patroclus and kill him in battle—to bring Achilles back to the war.  They have to do this because Hector has refused to take advantage of Patroclus’ weakness. Killing him would not be fair play. That seemed right for this performance. Why shouldn’t soldiers frag one of their own if he’s an impediment to victory?” This also seemed right about the horrors of war. I was pleased to see the students so engaged with this play, and James so willing to let them run with their ideas.

That’s enough to illustrate my point here: James Loehlin has unlocked the creativity in one class after another at Winedale for twenty years and counting. He has done this while also bringing each class together into a joyful and loving community. His success testifies to his character and his brilliant grasp of what it is that makes theater theater.