The Bard in a Barn

Alejandra Zambrano, right, discusses Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors with Seth Dumas at Shakespeare at Winedale.  Zambrano was one of three students who journeyed to Winedale the weekend of July 26-28 to see three plays by Shakespeare and one by Marlowe. She teaches in Piedras Negras and is seeking a Texas teacher certification.—Courtesy photo 

By Alejandra Zambrano, Sul Ross-Rio Grande College student

When three Sul Ross-Rio Grande College students and a professor met on a Friday morning late in July on the Eagle Pass campus, it was the beginning of an exciting trip that involved attending Shakespeare plays inside an old theater barn, eating at funky restaurants, singing to German music, visiting state historical sites, and touring some antique shops.

The Winedale Historical Center near Round Top, Texas, was the perfect way for the students to encounter living art through Shakespeare at Winedale, a program presented by the University of Texas that is dedicated to bringing the poet and playwright to life through performance.

When they arrived Friday evening for the opening play of the weekend, the group was amazed by the beautiful, isolated, wooded landscape that provided a special kind of magic for the performances. The stage is an old hay barn converted into a theater, a small space in which the audience feels a warm connection. James Loehlin, professor of English and director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program, welcomed the audience. For the first time in the program’s history, they were performing Christopher Marlowe’s thrilling tragedy, Doctor Faustus. The tale of Dr. Faustus showed his deal with the devil to gain knowledge and power. At the end of the performance, RGC English student Xhiomara Rodriguez commented, “I learned from Dr. Faustus how narcissism overfed can swallow you whole,” just as happens to Dr. Faustus in the play.

Saturday morning, the rainy weather did not stop them from visiting the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. They returned to Winedale to enjoy the first play of the day, The Comedy of Errors, in which two sets of twins are separated at birth. When they get back together, a lot of confusion happens due to mistaken identity. At the end of the performance, Rodolfo Rodriguez, a psychology student at Sul Ross who will be taking the Shakespeare class in the fall said, “After reading a couple of plays by Shakespeare I did not think he was capable of making me laugh, but I was proven wrong.”

Between plays, the Sul Ross group returned to Round Top for dinner at an original German restaurant named Scotty & Friends. They enjoyed a delicious meal in the company of classic German musicians who invited those at the table to sing and dance with them to the rhythm of their live music. The sightseers also spent some time visiting antique shops and galleries, observing beautiful paintings and Indian art.

Back in the theater barn at Winedale, they watched the second play of the day, Henry IV, Part I, about the king of England who began his reign by dealing with the murder of his predecessor. He then battled with Scotland and Wales and tried to deal with his son’s debauched behavior. For this performance, the students agreed that while it was a little hard to follow, they enjoyed the classic tale.

On Sunday, they toured the site of the first commercial brewery in the State of Texas, the Kreische Brewery before returning to Winedale to watch the last play, The Tempest. The plot revolves around the survival of shipwrecked sailors as they roam about an island inhabited with a spirit, Ariel; a savage and deformed slave, Caliban; the Duke of Milan, Prospero; and Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Rodolfo Rodriguez said, “The play that I enjoyed the most overall was The Tempest. It was not so much that it was a romance, but it contained intricate and impressive scenes. The dancing and singing of the fairies and the ship wreck at the beginning made you feel like you were actually there.”

To reinforce the students’ perception of Shakespeare, they gathered after every play for a discussion board. Rodolfo commented, “The overall lesson that I took from Shakespeare plays was that man, although he thinks very highly of him/herself, is flawed. They are all subject to maladies such as lust of power.” Xhiomara said, “I like coming to Shakespeare’s plays because the writing transcends time and space. It’s really inspirational for me to be able to see something written centuries ago that can still make me laugh, cry and see that people from that age experienced some of the same things we still experience now.”

After every play, the guests had a chance to speak to the students that performed on stage. Rodolfo Rodriguez commented, “Reagan Tankersley’s portrayal of Dr. Faustus was exceptional. It was a sight to behold. From start to finish, his performance sucks you in and by the time you know it, three hours have passed and the play is over.” Another performer, Seth Dumas, a UT student, said, “I applied for the play, even though I am not a drama major.” Shakespeare at Winedale gives students from all majors the opportunity to live a theatrical experience of great intensity, group interaction, self-exploration and the chance to perform in front of others.

Dr. Donald Walden, professor of English at Sul Ross State University, accompanied the students on the trip. He said, "All colleges have programs to expand students' minds.  They bring lecturers to the campus; they have concerts and plays, art exhibits, things like that.  It helps the students be more informed about the world.  We have brought lecturers and plays and musicians, but we don't have art museums or a drama department, so we take students.  It helps them understand the context of the stuff they're learning in class.  The context, even of a math or business class, is human life, and art helps explain life or at least makes people think about it. Shakespeare does that better than nearly any other artist."

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Note: The author, Alejandra Zambrano, is a student at Sul Ross-Rio Grande College at the Eagle Pass campus and teaches in Piedras Negras. She said, “I cannot wait to share with the children that I teach the beauty of working together to explore a play through performance and implement it with my class to develop the kids’ self-confidence and self-esteem through Shakespeare.”