Editor’s Note: This article appears in the Beverly-Hanks Welcome magazine, published in February 2020. The Montford Park Players cancelled much of their 2020 season in the wake of COVID-19, but they are staying active through virtual events.
Coming into its 47th season, the Montford Park Players remain a pillar of the theatre scene in Asheville and greater Western North Carolina. With intimate and captivating productions of Shakespeare’s greatest works held from spring through fall (and winter showings of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”), the free-flowing and welcoming atmosphere of the professional troupe is a testament to the passion on stage and in the audience.
“The arts continue to be a central point of interest for the entire Western North Carolina community. The arts have always been part of the culture here, and have always been a major draw” said John Russell, executive director for the Montford Park Players. “And I think that also represents an affirmation that Shakespeare is alive and well in the mountains. There’s an audience here for Shakespeare and other classically-themed works.”
The productions take place at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, a unique outdoor stage underneath whimsical trees amid a tranquil ambiance, even though it’s just a few blocks from Downtown Asheville.
During a performance, patrons can sit in the grass or on a lawn chair, perhaps enjoying a beverage, as performers roam the stage, sometimes wandering into the audience and eliminating the fourth wall.
“We really believe in a free model, where folks can come and watch the performances without having to pay, so that it’s open and available to anyone,” Russell noted. “And with that, we still have to overcome those financial obligations by selling fine wine and locally crafted beer onsite, and also having so many great donors that are theatre lovers.”
About a decade ago, the Montford Park Players started a children’s theatre group. Utilizing shorter versions of Shakespeare classics, there are a handful of kids productions performed on stage each season, with many of the young actors then moving up to the adult showcases.
“We have about 25 kids in the youth group. It’s sort of like a summer camp for them,” Russell said. “We also offer scholarships and an intense four-week rehearsal period. We started with Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It,’ then they tackled ‘King Lear’—they knocked that out of the park. Now, we’re excited for them to perform ‘Hamlet.’”
With over a dozen or so theatre companies currently dotting the Asheville metro area, Russell is proud of not only the vibrancy of the scene itself, but also the support from the community and visitors who find their way to the city in search of quality art and entertainment.
“Each theatre group seems to have its own area of expertise or niche. And it would be a tremendous loss to the culture and history of this city if that disappeared. So, it certainly means a lot when scores of people come back again and again,” Russell said. “And, for the Players, it always thrills me to see these great works of Shakespeare being performed, and done so well, too. I look for the reaction of the audience, this closeness between the performers and those watching.”
For Russell and the rest of the Montford Park Players, the works of Shakespeare remain as vital and riveting today as they did those many years ago when they were first written and performed at the Globe Theatre in London, England.
“The stories of Shakespeare just repeat themselves through the centuries,” Russell said. “Tales of war, of love, of betrayal—these were stories written by a man who was not only for his time, but for all time.”