Tucked away into Central Texas’ Hill Country is the repurposed ghost town of Winedale. Built by German immigrants in the nineteenth century, it nowadays features several creaky homes, a stagecoach inn, a single-room school, and a couple of ancient barns. By 1960s, the town was long-abandoned and consolidated into a single property, which the spectacularly named philanthropist Ima Hogg bequeathed to the University of Texas at Austin. Today, it is a space dedicated to the Humanities. UT-Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History manages the property as a museum of nineteenth-century material culture and daily life in an agrarian, immigrant community, where guests can wander the dirt roads linking buildings nestled among forests, bogs, and meadows.

Yet Winedale’s beating heart is not the historical center, but an academic program run since 1970 by UT-Austin’s English Department: Shakespeare at Winedale. Premised on the notion that the best way to study Shakespeare’s (and his contemporaries’) dramatic literature is through performance, one of the 1880s-built barns now serves as a theater. The Theater Barn is the home for several educational outreach programs and summer camps aimed at elementary- and middle-school-aged children, not to mention occasional professional theatrical productions, but its most distinctive residents are university students. Each summer, a cohort of students (mostly UT-Austin attendees) takes up residence on the Winedale property. (Other students spend several weekends there in the spring semester as part of a similarly-structured course.) They maintain the theater and its storehouses, construct props and sew costumes, assist in Winedale’s educational outreach programs, and prepare a 24-show season (mostly at Winedale, with three or four other performances elsewhere in Texas and in Stanton, Virginia’s American Shakespeare Center) with minimal assistance from the supervising faculty, who conceive of their roles as professors rather than directors. Though they themselves are students of Shakespearean literature and theater, they become educators themselves, helping curious youngsters and general audiences access art stripped of any pretensions or prohibitive pricing.

As an undergraduate, I spent two summers as one of the program’s students, in 2014 and 2017 (and took part in the similar Winedale Spring Class in 2016). To quote Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Winedale is “a world elsewhere.” The nearest town, Round Top, boasts of its ninety-person census count on signs and t-shirts. Cities like Austin, Houston, or Dallas are at least two hours away along highways with rather generous speed limits. (Round Top itself is an art hub for classical and contemporary music, poetry, food, and, most famously, antiquing.) Program participants—’Winedalers’—live on-site in a younger building referred to as the Dorm. Workdays at Winedale, particularly throughout June and into early July, before any of the performances reach the general public, begin early and end late. Meals, exercise, breaks for coffee and gatorade, and a few quiet moments punctuate rehearsals (referred to as ‘performances’ in-house), line practice, sewing costumes, practicing musical numbers, and choreographing dance and combat. Performances dominate weekends from mid-July through August: four evening shows, beginning Thursday, and afternoon matinees on Saturday and Sunday. And while weekdays are calmer once shows begin, work does not stop. There are lines to practice, costumes to touch-up, and scenes to polish.

All of this occurs in Central Texas’ verdant, gently rolling countryside. Life is everywhere. Critters abound, and the thrumming drone of locusts and cicadas, interrupted by birdsong, fills the day, giving way to choruses of tree frogs and crickets at night. More exotic creatures make appearances, as well—bald eagles, feral boar, bobcats, copperheads, velvet ants—I was once made eye contact with a mountain lion who chanced to peek over his shoulder while crossing a meadow. The most familiar critters, however, are dogs, either brought in by audience members or who wander in form the neighboring farmsteads to receive baths and belly rubs from the students. This environment is critical to Winedale. As You Like It is best viewed with songbirds contributing impromptu lines; Macbeth benefits from summer storms’ distant thunder; barking dogs contribute to the climactic battles of the Henriad.

On a scorching summer day, audience members crowd the barn, often with coolers holding beer or lemonade tucked beneath their chairs. Fans whir overhead, cicadas buzz outside. Actors wearing upholstery gowns and doublets deliver Early Modern English, their lines often inflected with a Texan twang. They take gag lines to children, or to the numerous Winedaler alumni in attendance. The end result is Shakespeare as it exists nowhere else. The entire space is dedicated to the production and appreciation of art, and that imbues both Winedale and the community of performers and audience members it has constructed over the past five decades with with an incredible sense of purpose.

I’m a historian, not an actor or literary scholar. Nonetheless, I’ve never seen a space embody what humanities education should be more than Winedale. The past and the art it left to us comes alive there in ever-surprising ways. More importantly, this space is engaging and accessible in a manner unthinkable elsewhere. Older literature suffers from snobbery and mass inaccessibility; Shakespeare is the foremost example. Yet Winedale sweeps those barriers aside. In The Barn, ‘the Bard’ becomes just another author, and anyone and everyone—small children, English-language learners, Bard-fanatics, proud rednecks—can sit side-by-side, watching youngsters breathe new life into ancient text. The Barn is not a single ‘humanities moment’—it’s a factory of such moments, archived in scuffed stages, costumes, photographs, and memories. So, if you ever find yourself in East-Central Texas, I encourage you to stop by Winedale, its museums, and its Barn, and create your own humanities moment there.

Artwork curtesy of Wendy Pillars, who produced this image of the Barn after reading an earlier draft of this work as part of the National Humanities Center’s 2020 Graduate Student Summer Residency.

– Bryson Kisner (age Ph.D. student at Rice University)