Shakespeare has left the building

It was a New Year’s Eve party in Montford, some 30-odd years ago. Three strawberry daiquiris, two sheets to the wind, and one stroke of luck later, Hazel Robinson’s vision for Shakespeare in Asheville came alive.

Hazel’s husband, John, had recently challenged his wife. She’d been complaining that Shakespeare was nowhere to be found in their mountain town.

“Look,” he said to her, “there’s a park right down the street — why don’t you do it yourself?”

But Hazel, bound by visions of red tape and redneck bureaucracy, claimed it would never work. If the faceless friend of a friend of the then-director of the Asheville Department of Parks and Recreation had not been invited to the same New Year’s gala, it might have taken John a few more new years to convince his wife that Shakespeare in the park was, indeed, doable.

But where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

The Montford Park Players, North Carolina’s first Shakespeare company, was founded in 1973 to bring Shakespeare, the classics (such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and original plays to the public, free of charge. Parks and Rec provided the players with space for a stage and green lumber for its construction. MPP’s Handbook for Members notes, “The first season was funded from the Robinsons’ grocery money, and we cleared $50, which was used for a cast party.”

The party continues: This summer marks the passage of 30 years of nonprofit productions. Over the years, many playgoers have brought their own refreshments to the outdoor shows. Appropriately, then, The Montford Park Players will celebrate by hosting a potluck picnic party on June 29, before the final Saturday-night performance of their first summer show, Othello. (Next in line is Two Gentlemen of Verona, running July 12-August 4.)

Shows are held in the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater nestled behind the Montford Community Center. I found the venue’s namesake to be a fabulously fierce, vivacious woman who knows what she doesn’t want — and how to get what she does. As the Bard himself wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Robinson’s love of Shakespeare’s vivid language and understanding of the human condition is what she’s thrust upon her audiences for three decades. She expects words to sing.

Iambic pentameter provides the linguistic sheet music for Shakespeare’s work. “For English speakers, it’s a natural beat, it’s the sort of thing you fall into, there’s something nice and solid and satisfying about it,” Robinson says.

Not to mention its practical applications: “If I want to improve my diction, my breath, cut down on smoking, improve my memory, I do a Shakespeare play,” says Deborah Austin, an original MPP incorporator.

Asked the secret of their company’s longevity, Robinson states, “Get you a good playwright, get you the best playwright there is, don’t have to pay royalties for it, and be as faithful as you can. Don’t warp [the work]. You owe the guy something. He sweated blood to get this thing right — the least you can do is honor his intention.”

Troupe survives bad weather, marauding beasts

No mere tempest on the twelfth night of performance can dampen these actors’ will to go on. Over the years, many natural theatrical disasters have threatened the show — from meandering drunks to marauding beasts (including a black cat crossing the king’s ill-fated path in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Helena proclaiming, “Wild beast that meet me run away for fear,” as a stray dog rushed the stage, barked and exited stage right) to third-grade hooligans throwing rocks at the stage, only to be chased up the hill with broad swords by players in 17th-century garb. (About the latter incident, Robinson explains that the intention was not to injure the little boys, but that “a show of force never hurts.”)

Mountain summers always yield rain, but unless the heavens open up, the show goes on. “We play through a sprinkle or a drizzle,” says Robinson. “Put something over your head and watch us. We’re out there getting wet too. If they stay, we play!”

Amid Asheville’s variable cultural climate — which has recently encompassed both the loss of a popular contemporary-theater troupe and the gain of two professional companies — Montford Park Players also continues to thrive.

But the troupe is facing changes of its own these days: Though Robinson clarifies that she’s stepping back, not down, the company is switching to a board-centered organization.

For 30 years she ran the show — but now weaning away her brainchild means prolonging its life. Robinson’s nephew, Peter Brezny, who debuted at MPP at age 6 and is now the board’s chairman, notes, “Hazel Robinson sees no impossibility.” It’s his job, along with other board members, to keep the troupe’s legacy — and Robinson’s wrath — alive.

This company has plucked a kid off the street and turned him into a Duke Squire, has retrieved a four-inch string off the floor and created a costume piece, has sustained itself as a nonprofit organization in a for-profit world for 30 years.

“We want to see the organization survive for another 30, 40, 1600 years,” says Brezny. “We are on the right track.”

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