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Play's the Thing!



Program Goals

  • Explore Shakespeare through Play with improvisations, songs, group readings and performances

  • Develop agency and independence

  • Create a safe respectful space

  • Enhance verbal and nonverbal communication

  • Encourage movement and physicality

  • Value teamwork and cooperation

  • Celebrate creative spontaneity 

  • Strengthen social skills

  • Grow positive peer relationships

  • Share our experiences with each other and our community

  • Have FUN!!

Description of our Play

Each session of Play's the Thing! starts with a song. Some of our songs are from Shakespeare's plays, like

A Lover and his Lass, others we learn elsewhere and teach each other.  All are fun and no musical talent or experience is necessary whatsoever. Some of our favorite songs are 3-6-9, The Princess Pat, and My Highland Goat,

to each of which we improvise movements, gestures, and noises to accompany them.     


Then we play various improvisational games to encourage problem solving, working and playing together, and

utilizing free improvisational play.


The final half of the session we Read and Perform Scenes from Shakespeare.  Sometimes we all participate in reading and performing the same scene together, but often we take a scene and split the group into three smaller groups, then each group goes off to create their version of the scene which we then perform for each other at the end of the session.  Parents, friends and family are encouraged to both participate in the sessions but if not they can come early to pick up their children and watch them perform the scenes.

Program History

After a distinguished career spanning Pediatric Oncology and Pain and Palliative medicine and being a former performer of Shakespeare himself, Craig had been dreaming of a way to enrich the lives of some of his young patients by introducing them to Play while exploring the works of Shakespeare.  


In 2010, Dr. Craig had the thrill and honor of re-connecting with Doc Ayres when he participated in the 40th Anniversary performance of the Shakespeare at Winedale program.  At that time, Craig heard about Doc’s Camp Shakespeare program. Doc created Camp Shakespeare as a way to offer kids an opportunity to experience Shakespeare through Play. Witnessing the healing power of Play, Craig proposed to Doc the idea for extending a similar experience to young people with chronic illness.  Doc loved the idea and enthusiastically put his energy and a great deal of his extensive experience, knowledge, and grace behind the program, becoming a vital force and founding member of Play’s the Thing!  

A myriad of fated events brought Doc, Craig, Kathy, Stan, Robin, Steven and others together in 2011 to create

Play’s the Thing!   This collective venture affords a limitless opportunity to ease suffering and provide healing through fantasy, guidance, and sheer fun for an ever-growing population of chronically ill children and their families.


One of our greatest successes has been the community created by the regular coming together of these young Players. The players develop and exhibit  leadership and ownership over time as they teach each other new songs, lead others in improvisational games and suggest new Shakespeare scenes and plays to explore. 


Despite the challenges facing these young people living with chronic illness, they share an impressive amount of energy, excitement and joy in their Play and in performing for each other and for larger audiences.  Their energy is palpable even in our regular performances at the end of each session, whether in the small amphitheater or outside in the colorful maze of the Healing Gardens, where random people walking by are drawn in to watch them play. 


In the spring of 2015, Dr. Craig was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Annual Conference of the Texas Pediatric Palliative Care Consortium.  Rather than giving an hour power-point presentation to the group, he asked the Play’s the Thing! players whether they would like to perform a scene from Midsummer Nights Dream.  They enthusiastically said YES!  They even wanted to meet additional days to work on the scene. These young players received an extended standing ovation by about 200 Pediatric Palliative Care professionals following their memorable performance.  See a video of the performance on our Gallery/Video page.  

In April 2016, Dr. Craig was invited to give a lecture on Shakespeare in Medicine as part of a series sponsored by the Mary Lu Joynes Endowment in the Plan II Honors Program and the Ethel E. Deen Endowment in the School of Undergraduate Studies at UT Austin.  The short talk was followed by a rich and inspiring performance of a scene from Richard III that featured two performers from Play's the Thing!  The performance ended with an engaging panel discussion with Play's the Thing! performers and team members.  A video of the performance is featured on our Gallery/Videos page.

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Chronic illness has the tendency to take the oxygen out of one's life.  Play is like oxygen, it is all around us, and mostly goes unnoticed until it is taken away by illness. The profound personalities and themes in Shakespeare's plays, combined with playful improvisations and song and laughter for no purpose other than because it is fun has the dramatic potential to create the Art of the Possible in children with illness, to build a positive community with other Players, and to form a lifelong flourishing relationship with their health.

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   WHO WE ARE   

Our Team

Jim (Doc) Ayres, PhD

   Doc Ayres is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus, at The University of Texas Austin and Founding Director of Shakespeare at Winedale and Camp Shakespeare programs, both of which are based on Doc’s innovative approach to teaching Shakespeare through performance.  One of Doc’s favorite sayings is, “Yes, and…” a phrase that evokes the openness, eagerness and courage that elevates the creative energy in groups.

Craig Hurwitz, MD

   Craig is an Associate Professor at UT Dell Medical School and a retired Pediatric Oncologist and Hematologist, and the former Director of Pain and Palliative Medicine at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin.  Craig’s experience during two summers in Shakespeare at Winedale as an undergraduate at UT Austin enhanced his medical career and helped guide him toward his focus on quality of life rather than curing disease.  Craig is a firm believer that fantasy and Play make visible the invisible truths of life and that Play is, in and of itself, a Healing Art.

Robin Grace Soto,BA

   Robin holds a BA in Theatre from S. Edwards University and is a graduate of the Actors Theatre of Louisville apprentice program. Robin serves as the Director of Camp Shakespeare at Winedale through the University of Texas, alongside the Founder of Shakespeare at Winedale, James Ayres. In addition to Camp Shakespeare, she currently serves as the Executive Director of the Flower Hill Urban Homestead Museum and has been working in non-profit management and arts education in Austin for the past 15 years. Robin is a gifted teacher, skilled at “reading” people and adapting her teaching methods to the needs of her students. 


Kathryn Blackbird, JD, MA

   Kathy has been a lawyer since 1989, but is also an expert in Fine and Decorative Art having received a Masters degree while living and working in London in 2002. She loved being in two summers and a spring class of Shakespeare at Winedale while a student at UT Austin and has performed in many community theater productions in Austin ever since.  Kathy and Craig met when both participated in the 40th Anniversary performance of Shakespeare at Winedale in 2010, and like a true Shakespearean romance, the stars aligned, they fell in love and were married a year later. 

Kirsten Kern, PhD

   Kirsten (Stan) has a PhD in Performance Studies and did three summers of Shakespeare at Winedale when at UT Austin. She has taught at The University of Texas at Austin, Southwestern University, and Rutgers University. She co-founded Texas Healing Arts Institute School of Massage (THAI) in 1997, where she taught bodywork for 18 years and developed a passion for moving bodies out of pain. As a member of community theater, she has studied movement and play for over 25 years. Stan is also a director of talent, a student of painting, and swimmer with sea turtles.

Steven Frantz, JD, MA

  Steven holds a JD in Law and a Masters in Social Work.  He spent many years working with the Hospice program in Austin and San Francisco.  Steven has a great sense of humor and a generosity of spirit that positively affects all who meet him.  Steven runs a non profit The Importance of Little Things which provides assistance to enhance the quality of life for low income end-of-life patients.

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