Take a role with the Montford Park Players, and you end up practically living at the summer troupe’s amphitheater home. You get to know the rest of the cast as well as any Shakespeare-loving strangers can expect to know one other.
And soon, the strange, dank smell of the amphitheater’s “back stage” — a cramped cinderblock box — becomes something you can’t quite forget.
As a former Player (among my other minuscule roles, I debuted as “Soldier #3” in the 1994 production of Richard III), I know that Hazel Robinson was the Montford Park Players. She cast all the shows, directed nearly all of them, served as technical designer and producer, and arranged everything down to the brand of gold spray paint on the soldiers’ helmets.
It was through her that the amphitheater came to be — and that the Montford Park Players now enjoy their status as the longest-running Shakespeare festival in North Carolina.
After almost three decades under Robinson’s watch, though, the Players now tackle the Bard without their matriarch: A few seasons ago, Robinson stepped out of her leadership role. And since then, the amphitheater hasn’t changed all that much.
Unless you know what to look for.
“Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it”
For years, the Players relied on the same stock of outfits. These costumes had been worn countless times in countless shows by countless actors. Often, they smelled like it. But even this is slowly changing.
“We’re replacing a few costumes every production as we go,” says the troupe’s current costume designer, Linda Underwood, pointing to a wardrobe created just for this show. “These are made with really, really beautiful materials. We’re trying to get quality materials, and use them in a way that they can be used for many, many years.”
Jason Williams, who plays inspired antagonist Hotspur in the Players’ current production of Henry IV, Part 1, has been acting with Montford since The Winter’s Tale three summers ago.
He believes that the group is finally growing into its new role.
“It’s been coming for a while,” says Williams. “We’ve had directors like Andy Reed and Susan Dillard, who have been pushing the envelope a little bit more. [We’re] becoming a more professional company. Not that we’re ever going to get paid or anything.”
Part of Montford’s appeal to so many actors is the sense of community — though in the late 1990s, a rough patch of poorly put-together shows prompted many local performers to look elsewhere for projects. But this also seems to be changing.
“Andy Reed talked me into coming back to Montford,” says Bob Kovak, who — after several years’ hiatus — has returned to play King Henry.
“This time is really a turning point,” he declares. “We’ve got a good crew, and everything is going up in quality.
“The coffee is still deadly,” he adds with a broad smile, “but at least it warms you up.”
“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves”
“There will always be things about Montford that will stay the same,” says the Players’ board chairman, Peter Brezny, the nephew of Hazel Robinson and an active member of the Players for more than 25 years.
The changes are mainly procedural and organizational, Brezny explains.
“In the past, we could always rely on Hazel or [her husband] John Robinson,” he continues. “But now that we’ve transitioned to a board-driven organization, there isn’t any single person that knows the entire whole of the theater.”
Part of the shift has involved introducing new blood.
Andy Reed, who’s directing the current production, has become one of Montford’s more active members, helping to revitalize the company by bringing dramatic passion in line with the business and organizational skills he’s picked up at larger theaters. Reed says he’s comfortable being considered part of Montford Park’s “new guard.”
“I think it’s great,” he enthuses. “What Hazel has built here is a remarkable and wonderful institution. It’s a magnificent legacy, both to her and to Asheville.”
Reed believes, however, that a new level of “professionalism and commitment” will be necessary to cultivate in the face of Asheville’s growing theater scene.
“With all the competition from the other theater groups in town, we have to have standards that are as high as [theirs] — on every level,” he concludes. “We can’t allow ourselves to think: Oh, well, we’re Montford. We’re different.”
Henry IV, Part 1 wraps up its run with three more shows, Friday, June 27 through Sunday, June 29 at 7:30 p.m. each day in the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater in Montford Park. This production is followed by Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays beginning Friday, July 11 and concluding Sunday, Aug. 3. Admission is free, and donations are encouraged. For more information, visit www.montfordparkplayers.com or call 254-4540.