25 Years Of Salado Legends

July 4, 2017

Outdoor drama still thrilling audiences

There’s an uncommon hillside nestled into the village of Salado. Shaded by oaks and cedars, it’s the site of the Goodnight amphitheater, one part of a sprawling 15-acre natural area known as the Tablerock Festival. For twenty-five years it’s been
the venue for “Salado Legends”, an outdoor drama that has thrilled audiences of all ages.

“Drama” may be too tame to describe the three-performances-a-year production. “Epic” in the Homeric tradition of grand and monumental is probably closer to the truth, considering over 100 actors onstage, actual livestock in many scenes, cannons firing a few feet from the audience, eye-catching period costumes, pretty girls, Native Americans on the warpath and the gripping saga of the War Between the States.

“Salado Legends” proudly claims a singular distinction: it’s the only outdoor drama in the State of Texas chosen by the Library of Congress to “preserve our nation’s diverse cultural traditions for generations of Americans, present and future.”

The Tablerock Festival was started in 1979 by a handful of arts aficionados from Salado, Belton, Temple and other areas with the goal of promoting central Texas arts as well as giving exposure to actors and musicians living in the community. But the real impetus behind the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization for the past two and one-half decades is artist, poet and award-winning playwright Jackie Mills.

A Salado resident, the indefatigable octogenarian created the script for “Legends”, and has acted as producer, director, prompter, lyricist, costume mistress “and just about everything else,” she said with a laugh, remembering the early days of the festival.

“I inherited a checkbook with a balance of exactly $1.33. Some people we owed, like a plumber, for instance, had given up ever getting paid. But,” she reflected, “donations come where you don’t expect it.” Mills’ script weaves the tale of Salado, intertwining the arrival of Scottish settlers around 1859, Salado College, glimpses of village life and the Civil War. There is the requisite love story, subplots, as well as plenty of singing and dancing, but most theater-goers’ take-away impression is likely to be a reminder that the War Between the States and the Confederacy’s misplaced hubris took a horrific toll on the not-yet 100-year old United States.

At rehearsal, the ear-splitting roar of the cannons is accompanied by small arms fire. As the actors reload, Mills off-handedly remarks, “No, we don’t use blanks in the guns. It’s real black powder.”

That realism is a key reason this production grips the audience. Drama is also heightened by the use of multiple staging areas in addition to the vast main stage in front. On audience left, limestone masonry and cedar logs provide a backdrop for a battle scene. Actors on horseback carry the Confederate wounded from the back of the audience seating area to the front main stage. A massive stone monolith to the right of the seats represents the fabled “table rock” of Salado Creek which still rests in the stream and inspired the name of the festival.

The 440 seats of the amphitheater are in shade by curtain time, and the old-time wagon hauled by a team of mules passes at arm’s length of the first row of wide-eyed children. When you consider the authentic Scottish bagpiper, Indian campfire magic, set pieces that include scores of dancers costumed in authentic mid-1800s finery, professional-grade audio and lighting design, you’ve got to admit – dull, it’s not. With Sam Houston, the Tonkawa tribe, Spanish explorers, local NBC-TV weatherman Andy Andersen and his horse onstage, there are few slow moments. The hillside’s slope gives unobstructed sight lines while native stone terraces and ample room on the sides allow for an additional 200 audience members. Folding chairs, blankets and quilts for families are welcome and the recently added concession building has modern rest rooms and offers an assortment of food and drink. The parking area is closer to seats than most megascreen movie theater/parking lot distances, and is cleverly located, hidden from view and screened by trees.

“Salado Legends” is a two-act drama, but the book and music are constantly revised. Mills adds well-improvised dialogue as well as happy accidents. “Some of the on-the-fly things have really added to the script,” she explains. She’s often cut songs or added new ones to fit a certain performer’s capabilities. “We originally had forty cast members,” she chuckled. “Now we have three times that number, but each child has at least one line.”

Director Donnie Williams is back for his twelfth year at the helm. He’s been active at Tablerock since 1988 along with his wife and daughter. “It’s really a family event,” he says, pointing out the eight members of the Carpenter family, from nearby Georgetown, all diligently blocking an ensemble dance scene. Many of the cast and crew have participated for a decade or longer. “It’s fun to see them grow up,” Mills adds.

In nearby Salado Creek, the clear spring waters flow past the original table rock, once a meeting place for Native Americans, later a trysting spot for Salado College students. Today the Tablerock Festival continues the tradition of a favored meeting location, Salado’s lasting legacy.

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