ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Seemingly ageless at 90, Hazel Robinson still keeps up a Facebook page. The beloved founder of Montford Park Players still holds a seat on the board overseeing the theater she and her late husband John began in the summer of 1973. And she remains chairwoman emerita of the company, still much devoted to the works of Shakespeare and to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” presented by the theater each year.
So what has changed?
Robinson gave up cigarettes a decade ago – and that’s about it.
“I had been diagnosed with lung cancer and I thought I had better quit,” she said earlier this month while sitting in her big 19th century Victorian home in Asheville’s Montford neighborhood that she shares with her daughter Margaret. “Now I’m vaping (with an electronic cigarette) but not inhaling.”
The first lady of theater in a city that values the performing arts, Robinson gave many locals their first shots at working on and off stage. They include Deborah Austin, whose connection to Robinson goes back decades. At age 11, she and her brother found shelter from a rain by dashing into Asheville Community Theater, where Robinson was working as technical director.
“We walked into the scene shop and Hazel put me to work upholstering,” Austin remembered. “I had never upholstered in my life, but Hazel said ‘Of course you can, dear,’ ” And that more or less led to Austin’s own career in theater, which she continues today.
Robinson “began a theater that has been a training ground,” Austin said. “She knows what she wants. The text is holy. She would make minor changes (in the words of Shakespeare or Dickens) but has been very careful to leave the number of syllables the same, so they would have the same rhythm.”
Her contribution to the arts in Asheville has been huge, said John Russell, managing director of the Montford Park Players. “She has had influence on so many theater people,” he said. “Her hands-on management in the early days was critical to the theater’s success.”
Yet, as Robinson remembers it, if not for three strawberry daiquiris at a holiday party, the Montford Park Players might have never been born. She and John had been to Minneapolis and were much impressed by an outdoor Shakespeare theater there.
“I had never seen anyone do that,” she said. At a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Asheville gallery owner John Cram, a stranger asked her about it.
“He gave me his name, and I forgot it, and haven’t seen him since,” Robinson said. “He said ‘ I hear you want to do Shakespeare in the park,’ and I said no. I wouldn’t even know how to start.” But the man made an introduction to Ray Kisiah, then the director of Asheville Parks and Recreation, who gave the go-ahead and the Montford Park Players did their first show “As You Like It,” in the Montford Park, not far from where the Robinsons were living.
The park was packed all summer for the free show. Robinson filled the cast “with all the people I knew,” she said.
The Montford Park Players remained at the park until 1983, when it moved to a new city amphitheater nearby, since renamed in Robinson’s honor. The outdoor shows were always free, thus introducing the Bard to many who might have never have experienced his work.
“When Montford started, the studying of Shakespeare was very limited,” said Austin. “And then there were so many young people working in a Shakespeare play, that it became an introduction” to his works, Austin said. Later, the theater added a ticketed indoor holiday production of “A Christmas Carol” to its repertoire as a way to fund the Shakespeare shows.
There were countless donations by many in the audience.
“You didn’t need a huge bankroll or a building of your own,” she said. “We thought that we’d try it for one season, and if it didn’t work out, we didn’t have to go on.” But the company has becoming one of Asheville’s most enduring theater groups and has expanded its lineup to include a fall and winter season at the historic downtown Masonic Temple.
A lifelong theater fan, Robinson was born in Mississippi but spent her childhood moving with her family around Western North Carolina. It was in grade school that she saw the Shakespeare work that she calls “the Scottish play,” careful not to use the name “Macbeth,” keeping with theater tradition.
As a young woman, she attended the then-named East Carolina’s Teachers College in Greenville in eastern North Carolina. It was then that her desire to do theater powered up, and transferring to UNC Chapel Hill, she was active in the school’s legendary Playmakers company.
After school, life took her in many directions, including marriage to a poet that ended in divorce, but she met John Robinson, an accountant, and they eventually moved back to Asheville in 1957. They raised four children – Margaret, Joe, Johnny and Kenneth.
Robinson took her youngsters to try out for the Tanglewood Children’s Theater, “which was new, and everyone was turning out for it,” she said.
As she was leaving, someone convinced her to stay and “help out backstage, and that was that,’ she said. Later, she joined Asheville Community Theater “doing whatever that needed doing,” then was hired as technical director for $100 a month “and they gave me another $100 to put on the show,” she said.
Robinson worked at ACT from “1963 or 1964 until 1972′” and a year later started the Montford Park Players.
She and John managed to raise their children while putting on shows each summer and Christmas. She never learned to drive and her husband took her everywhere they went.
“There would have been no Montford Park Players without John,” Austin said. “He was the support who gave her the time to do it. He would do a roll if there was no one else to do it. He was the foundation. It was a strong and loving marriage.” He died last July at the age of 91.
Robinson continued to direct Shakespeare and Dickens for decades, occasionally slipping into an acting role, such as the starring character in “Driving Miss Daisy” and the role of the housekeeper in “My Fair Lady,” for Asheville Community Theater.
She directed her last production of “A Christmas Carol” in 2012 but would return to the stage if needed and asked, she said. But she would want to do the shows as they were written, not new variations which have become more commonplace in recent years. “I am a classicist,” she said.
For now, it’s back to life in Montford. As Robinson concluded an interview, she stood from her chair, leaving behind a little plastic figure of Shakespeare sitting on a table and heading out the door to her front yard, talking about what she wants to do next with her property.
“I can go on for a while at a given thing,” she said.
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com