There’s a shaded, favored hillside in the village of Salado that springs to life once each year. That’s when the stillness of the live oaks and ashe junipers is overtaken by the exuberant energy of folks from across Central Texas with one thing in mind: the epic outdoor musical drama, “Salado Legends.”

It’s been this way for the last 21 years. The Goodnight Amphitheater, part of the Tablerock Festival of Salado, rises Brigadoon-like from its summer slumber as crew and cast descend upon the property to produce this season’s version of the play.

Award-winning playwright Jackie Mills oversees rehearsal with a decided maternal manner. In addition to the libretto, she wrote lyrics for the musical numbers, has served as director, producer and even sewn the costumes.

“Be careful not to step on your pantaloons,” she reminds a fully-costumed 12-year-old actress. “When you’re the repair seamstress, you tend to notice things like that,” Mills said.

It’s no hype to call “Salado Legends” an epic. With 118 actors onstage, livestock in some scenes and authentic sound effects: “No, we don’t use blanks in the guns. It’s real black powder,” Mills said off-handedly — this play’s set pieces thunder across the stage.

The drama’s impact is heightened by using multiple staging locations in addition to the traditional front stage. To the left of the audience, about one-third of the way up, cedar logs and limestone masonry provide the backdrop for a battle scene. Horses bring the Civil War wounded from the back of the seating area to the front. A massive stone monolith positioned audience right captures the fabled “table rock” of Salado Creek, still visible in the actual stream and the namesake for the site.

The hillside’s slope gives unobstructed sight lines for all of the 422 permanent, stadium-style seats. Native stone terraces and ample side ground allow room for 200 audience members. Folding chairs, blankets and quilts for families are welcome, too.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Tablerock’s expenses have always been a constant challenge. When Mills began with Tablerock 22 years ago, “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,” she said. “But donations come from where you don’t expect it.”

Labor of love

Those unexpected contributions paid off last year in the form of the “new building”: a two-story masonry structure at the back of the seating area that houses a concession stand, restrooms and a large upstairs meeting room with balcony. “We pay as we go,” Mills said. “If we don’t have enough money, we’ll wait until next year.” It’s a labor of love for actors, crew and staff and only one person is paid — the yard man.

Director Donnie Williams, Leadership Academy coordinator for Killeen’s Ellison High School, is back for his eighth year at the helm. Williams has been active at Tablerock since 1998, along with his wife and daughter. “It’s really a family event,” he said, pointing out the eight members of the Carpenter family from Georgetown.

“Krista (Ash), our lead, has played Lucy three seasons.” Many of the actors have been in the cast for a decade or more. “It’s fun to see them grow up,” Mills said.

The play tells the story of Salado from the Scottish settlers’ arrival in the late 1800s to the end of the Civil War as Confederate soldiers return home.

And this two-act drama’s book and music is not cast in stone; Mills incorporates happy accidents and improvised dialogue: “Some of the on-the-fly things have really added to the script,” and she will cut songs or add new ones to fit a performer’s abilities. “We originally had 40 cast members,” Mills said. “This year, we have three times that number, but each child has at least one line.”

In a rousing scene, “floosies,” played by Sarah Sanderford and Melodie Coleman, sashay to the seats and plop themselves in the lap of a Confederate soldier seated among the regular audience. A vivacious redhead, Sanderford finishes her dance scene onstage to the applause of the cast and crew.

When asked about “Salado Legends,” she takes a moment to catch her breath, then says with a smile, “You come, you get hooked, and you stay.”

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