Remembering Professor James Loehlin
Former MA student Allison Dillon, honours the late Professor James Loehlin.
James Loehlin, Director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program, died on September 14, 2023. James led the intensive English Department program at The University of Texas at Austin for over two decades. Despite a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in the early summer of 2022, he continued teaching and writing until his death. I knew James for thirteen years. It should have been many more. He has been my teacher, mentor, supervisor, and friend. During the last year of his life, I served as the Program Coordinator for Shakespeare at Winedale.
Founded in 1970, the Shakespeare at Winedale program emphasizes performance as a learning tool, rather than an end in itself. The program takes place at the Winedale Historical Complex, located in the bucolic Texas Hill Country. Winedale consists of a collection of historic buildings, including a nineteenth-century German hay barn that has been converted into an Elizabethan-inspired theater. Each summer, students from all disciplines gather in the Theatre Barn to study Shakespeare for sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. The summers conclude with public performances of the plays studied. As a child, James attended performances in the Theatre Barn with his family. He would later participate in the program as a university student in 1983 and 1984. And in the early 2000s, he took over as Director from the program’s founder, Dr. James “Doc” Ayres.
For many years, James took his Winedale students to visit Shakespeare’s Globe after their Texas performances were complete. Despite the obvious difference in scale, location, and history between these two theatres, it was easy for the Winedalers to feel at home in the Globe. The Theatre Barn had acquainted them with performing and projecting in the elements and inspired an appreciation of Elizabethan theatrical practices. Perhaps this is why a number of Winedale students, including me, have gone on to participate in the Shakespeare Studies MA that is taught jointly at the Globe and King’s College London.
One would be hard to pressed to find a student of James Loehlin’s who didn’t name him as their favourite educator. Since his death, dozens of beautiful and eloquent tributes and been penned and posted about James. As time passes, I hope to comprehend the complete reach of his influence, but right now the loss feels so close, like waiting for dust to settle after an explosion. All I have currently are the anecdotes I carry around about James, like a pocket full of smoothed over stones. We, his students, all do this. He was too great a man to be accurately described in a concise summary or quick list of adjectives. Instead, we share our moments and memories of him, hoping that those who hear us might begin to understand how much he has meant to us all.
When I was a student at Winedale in the summer of 2013, James assigned me the role of Prospero. My initial excitement quickly turned to apprehension. James valued when students were “word perfect” in their performance and with his encyclopedic knowledge of the plays, a dropped syllable or an inverted word never escaped his attention. With so many lines, I found it difficult to get through the play without a mistake. Disappointing James, every Winedale student’s worst nightmare, seemed like an inevitability. I monomaniacally focused on the text, hoping that if I set the verse deep enough into my mind errors would be impossible.
A key component of the Shakespeare at Winedale program is that the students are responsible for crafting the costumes and props that appear on stage. James tried and tried to convince me to make a robe for Prospero. An anxious mess, I stubbornly refused. None of the patterns he showed me or rich fabrics he’d found could divert me from my futile attempt to be a word-perfect Prospero.
Finally, one day at lunch, James pulled me away from my meal and led me to the back of the barn. He showed me a dull, dusty curtain in a storage bin. It was the first curtain that had ever hung in the discovery space of the Theatre Barn, decades old now and starting to fray. James asked if I would make a new robe if he let me use this curtain as my fabric. He knew that would be too special of an offer for me to decline. He’d found the tool to pull me out of myself and gently push me to do more than I thought I could. The way he cared for his students is something I’d never seen and will likely never see again.
When I received the news that James had died, I was at Winedale collecting the current Theatre Barn curtain. It too has now seen many decades of dust and heat and the seams are loosening. One day it will find its way into someone else’s costume, but for now it’s in the backseat of my Subaru, travelling with me wherever I go, a tangible reminder of the goodness and kindness of James Loehlin.