The Montford Park Players were strictly a no-frills operation in the early days.
“We were pitching tents for dressing rooms at Montford Park or changing in the park’s bathrooms,” says Deborah Austin, who first worked with the group in 1974 as a stage manager for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She subsequently worked on numerous other shows.
Actors used picnic tables at the city park to do their makeup, Austin continues, while costumes were stored in a small space between a restroom and a concrete building.
“It was sort of like camping — with Shakespeare,” she says.
From such humble beginnings at a small neighborhood park, the nonprofit group has grown to where it now averages more than 12,500 patrons a year at the city-owned Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, says Executive Director John Russell. Attendance at the Gay Street venue hit a record high of 18,000 in 2018.
The amphitheater, which opened in 1983 in the city’s 17-acre Montford Recreation Complex (today’s Tempie Avery Montford Community Center), enjoys the third-largest attendance of any outdoor theater in North Carolina. According to Russell, only The Lost Colony at Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island and Unto These Hills at Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee attract more visitors.
But as the Montford Park Players embark on their 50th season, the troupe can claim the mantle of North Carolina’s longest-running Shakespeare theater company.
While the growth and continued success might be surprising to some who were there at the beginning, at least one person saw the potential: the late Hazel Robinson, the group’s founder.
“Hazel certainly had a great imagination and a great vision of what [the Montford Park Players] could become,” Austin says. “Just the fact that a nonprofit survives its founder is a statement of a strong foundation.”
Bringing the Bard to Asheville
Robinson, who was active in the Asheville theater scene, was inspired to start the Montford Park Players after she and her husband saw a performance of Twelfth Night at a park in Minnesota.
“She thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Shakespeare in Asheville?’” Russell says.
Robinson chose to launch the series at Montford Park because of its proximity to her home, which served as the de facto headquarters for the volunteer actors who gathered for line coaching, meals and more.
The troupe debuted in 1973 with As You Like It and stuck to comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew for the first few seasons. “In tragedies, the actors need to have had enough background that they don’t have to worry about technique,” Robinson told The Asheville Citizen in 1975. “Comedy takes technique, but the play will carry them more easily while they’re learning.”
In 1977, the group finally took on tragedy by performing Macbeth, and over the years it has mounted Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus and more. The 50th season takes audiences back to the beginning with As You Like It, with Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet also on the schedule.
While the group has kept Shakespeare plays central to its mission, it quickly branched out by putting on productions of A Christmas Carol at various locations each December. In 1983, it presented Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as its first non-Shakespeare summer production at the park.
In recent years, the players have performed such works as Pride and Prejudice, adapted from the Jane Austen novel, The Sword in the Stone and The Importance of Being Earnest. In addition to the works by Shakespeare, this year’s slate includes The Little Prince and the WNC premiere of The Three Musketeers.
Before Russell became the troupe’s first (and only) full-time employee in 2006, the company would perform two shows a summer at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. That brought in about 2,000 visitors a year.
Under Russell’s leadership, the group started an aggressive marketing campaign, doubled audience capacity at the amphitheater and increased the number of plays it put on each season. In 2021, the MPP performed a staggering eight plays over 26 weeks.
“Everybody loved it, but we decided it was killing our staff,” Russell says. “So I backed it down to five shows this season. Each show will run five weeks.”
In 1975, two years after its first performances, the Montford Park Players was established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The group doesn’t charge admission; instead, it raises money through annual donations, grants, program sponsorships, beer and wine sales, and passing the hat during show intermissions.
“We work on the ‘pay-what-you-think-we’re worth’ method,” Russell says. “Actors actually go out there with buckets and collect money.”
In 2021, the Montford Park Players spent $263,000 while taking in $360,000 through grants, donations and revenue. Most of that money came in through federal relief grants tied to COVID-19. Meanwhile, beer and wine sales, which the theater began in 2012, provided a healthy $80,000 in revenue.
This year’s operating budget is slightly less at $250,000, but Russell says that number could increase depending on whether the group lands recent grants he has applied for.
One source of money has disappeared, though. In 2021, the group partnered with Asheville’s Plugged-In Productions to host nine concerts at the amphitheater. Asheville’s newly revised noise ordinance, which went into effect in September, put an end to that. (Plugged-In Productions continues to have talks with city staff in hopes of bringing concerts back to the stage in the future.)
“That brought in a good chunk of revenue to us, which I’m working on trying to replace,” Russell explains.
While Russell is the only full-time staff member, he says it would be impossible to run the Montford Park Players without the work of a number of talented part-timers he hopes to make full time eventually.
And then there are the 200 or so volunteer actors and crew members who give their time each year. Those people include locals looking to scratch an itch for live theater as well as professional non-Equity actors.
“They love coming over here because they love Shakespeare, and working outdoors is a totally different experience,” Russell says. “And, of course, Shakespeare looks really good on a resume. The greatest playwright the world’s ever known.”
Many current Montford Park crew members and actors have been involved for more than 15 years, Russell says. This includes Trinity Smith Keel, actor and head of costumes, Deanna Braine Smith, production manager, and Caitlin Lane, senior stage manager.
Over the years, shows have also featured actors and crew members who went on to work in theater and film in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, including Cody Magouirk, Casey Morris and Abby Hoke-Brady. Tiffany Fisher-Love, who got her start with the Montford Park Players, is now an Emmy-nominated filmmaker.
Life of the community
Austin says the city of Asheville, which leases the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre to the nonprofit for $1 a year, deserves much of the credit for the group’s success. “It’s remarkable to have a parks and recreation department that considers Shakespeare as part of the definition of recreation,” she says.
Having a theater in a neighborhood adds to the life of the community, Austin adds. She remembers in the early days when children would come and watch the productions in Montford Park. Some of them became pages or played fairies on stage and developed a love of theater.
More recently, family-friendly productions such as Peter Pan, Robin Hood and James and the Giant Peach have helped bring in young parents with kids, a completely new demographic for the Montford Park Players, Russell says.
On the performance side, the youth-led Montford Moppets, once part of the Montford Park Players’ education department, spun off into its own nonprofit Shakespeare program in 2020. The Moppets, made up of youths ages 9-17, will perform The Tempest Friday-Sunday, July 1-3, and Friday-Saturday, July 8-10.
Unlike the work of so many other playwrights, says Austin, “Shakespeare’s plays offer a look at mankind and have a beauty of language that more contemporary drama is lacking.”