No town in Texas, regardless of size, has anything as special as the Emily Ann Theatre—showcased by its annual Shakespeare Under the Stars (July 30-August 11).
This isn’t any ordinary Shakespeare nor is it an ordinary theater.
This is a first class production by middle and high school students who do everything—act, sew costumes, build sets, and work lighting.
“You get a lot of opportunities to learn things here that you can’t learn anywhere else,” says Mary Rath, this season’s set designer. She was a student here, as were Ben and Sally, her two siblings. All three have returned as supervisors of sets or costuming.
“You get realistic experience here,” she says.
Indeed. On this particular day students are helping Ben build an elephant and others are sewing garishly brilliant costumes for Much Ado About Nothing.
The costumes will wake up any audience. They are, in the words of costume shop supervisor Cammercy Blevins, “Victorian circus.” She knows her costumes. She has a degree in costume design, worked on the Beatles Love show in Las Vegas, and designed costumes at San Diego’s famed Old Globe Theatre.
The EmilyAnn stage is similar to the Old Globe, similar to the original Globe in London, in that it’s an open-air design. In this season’s production, the audience will not only be treated to a rollicking Shakespearean comedy, but also the aforementioned elephant, a seesaw, a trampoline, a unicyclist, a fire eater, and who knows what else the director will pull out of her hat.
Bridget Farias is the theater’s artistic director, coming here when she was a senior at Texas State University.
“I saw this place and it just felt magical—and that was before I knew the backstory,” she recalls.
The backstory began a few days before Christmas 1996 when 16-year-old Emily Ann Rolling was killed in an automobile accident. She studied drama at Wimberley High School and participated in the Shakespeare Under the Stars when it was held at the school’s theater.
Her parents, Ann and Norm Rolling, founded the theater to honor Emily Ann and expand and preserve the Shakespeare program. The program moved to the hilltop amphitheatre in 1998 and has blossomed since then.
Students come from all over the state, and a few—like the two this year from North Carolina—visit from out-of-state. It’s the 23rd year for the program, the 14th on the EmilyAnn boards.
It’s the only high-school accredited program of its kind in the nation.
“We’ve added more workshops so the kids get a full understanding of one play,” Ann says. “They learn acting, characterization, fighting choreography, scansion, improvisation, and lighting. We offer kids a one-of-a-kind opportunity to design a play and build it. In every sense. They start on July 2 and have everything ready in 30 days. It’s amazing. It’s grown beyond our wildest dreams.”
The EmilyAnn Theater was created with donations and by hundreds of volunteers in August 1998, carving one of the largest permanent outdoor stages in the country from a brushy, rocky field. The theater and gardens now cover 12 acres up and around one of the tallest hills in Wimberley.
She notes that if they had lived in any place other than Wimberley, they couldn’t have accomplished what they did.
“No community I know of would have come together the way Wimberley did. And we’ll continue to serve the community,” Ann says.
For the first time, the theater has grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Dallas Shakespeare Club, Ann notes proudly.
Watching the students work and laugh, it’s obvious to any observer that these few days will teach them valuable lessons in self-confidence, team work, accomplishing goals, and leadership.
But the EmilyAnn Theatre and Gardens feeds the soul in many other ways.
Where else can you play a game of chess using pieces almost as large as you are? Where else can you play a tune on whimsical instruments or stroll along xeriscaped grounds and trails with spectacular views? You can enjoy a shaded picnic area, a puppet theater, Sleeping Beauty’s carriage, or have your picture taken with a dinosaur.
At the top of the hill is a place that has become sacred in Wimberley. The Veterans Memorial honors America’s military, while adjacent to it another memorial honors children in the community who have died. While up top, take in the 360-degree of the Wimberley Valley.
And the magic doesn’t stop after the summer Shakespeare production. Other plays are performed here- the annual Holiday Trail of Lights fills the area with sights and sounds during December, and in April, Butterfly Day delights adults and children alike.
And these few words don’t do the EmilyAnn Theatre and Gardens justice... you have to see it for yourself.
Much Ado About Nothing will be performed nightly except Sunday July 30-August 11. Macbeth will be performed Friday and Saturday nights October 5-27. A Christmas Carol: The Musical will be performed Thursdays through Sundays November 1-18. And the Trail of Lights will be on display November 24-December 31, Sundays-Thursdays 6-9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 6-10 p.m.
The EmilyAnn Theatre and Gardens is open daily from dawn to dusk except during the Trail of Lights when it is open as noted above. It is located at 1101 Ranch Road 2325. For more information, call 512-847-6969 or visit the web site at emilyann.org.