It's impossible for Blake Robison to know just how curious it feels to walk into the Playhouse in the Park's corner office "” the artistic director's office "” and not see Ed Stern behind the desk.

When we spoke recently, Robison had occupied the desk for a little more than two weeks, far less than the 20 years the position had been Stern's. Robison hadn't even had a chance to make the space messy.

The books "” biographies, short stories, dramaturgy, theater history, screenplays, a few classic novels, two or three Bibles and, of course, lots and lots of scripts "” are in neat rows, not a single one out of place yet. There were no papers strewn around his desk "” the same one Stern used for so many years, incidentally "” none of the stuff that inevitably builds up as one inhabits a space for years.

But make no mistake, Robison will make this office his own. And, inevitably, he will change this place. He won't necessarily reinvent it.

But he will, ever-so-gradually, turn this into Blake Robison's Playhouse in the Park.

That's his job, just as it has been for the 11 artistic directors before him. It's not part of the job description.

But it is the unwritten understanding when the Playhouse Board hires a new leader. Change will happen.

There are a few givens. The board wants someone who can make good theater. It wants balanced budgets. It wants lots of subscribers. And a little national recognition wouldn't hurt, either. But as with any executive hire, there is a reason they chose this guy above all the other candidates.

He has the right résumé. He founded the Vermont Stage Company and, most recently, ran a successful mid-sized regional theater, the Round House Theatre in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Just as important, though is that he is an extremely likeable man. Quick to laugh and easy to talk to, he is a comfortable blend of Everyman and big-time intellect. It's an incredibly appealing combination.

He's incredibly affable and very accessible, says D. Lynn Meyers, the longtime artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. "Ed Stern and I have gotten to be very good friends over the years.

"But Blake is totally different from Ed. He's just what the Playhouse needs at this moment in time. His tastes are different. His season is different. He has a fresh outlook. I think his energy is genuinely lovely."

Robison grew up in an academic and well-connected household. His father held several positions in the Johnson-era Peace Corps and State Department, then worked his way up the academic ladder in a variety of New England colleges and universities before becoming the president of Middlebury College in Vermont when Blake was 9.

It was a place where anything seemed possible, especially for young Blake Robison, the college president's kid, who seemed to be good at everything.

He excelled in baseball and soccer. And he was the leading man in several high school plays: Danny Zuko in Grease, Tom in The Glass Menagerie and Bernardo in West Side Story.

But by the time he got to Williams College, theater edged out the other interests.

"That was where I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't going to be a world-class athlete," says Robison.

He laughs, but there's still a teeny bit of sadness there.

You get the sense that if the U.S. Men's Soccer team were to call and ask him if he could step in for a couple of games he'd be on the next plane out of town.

Indeed, the sole family photo in his office shows him with his wife (actress Connan Morrissey) and two sons, Declan, 12, and Callum, 6, at a Reds game. "The first of many games, I'm sure," says Robison.

Ever the man for detail, Robison has the boys wearing crisp, new Reds caps. And Robison himself? He's wearing a Playhouse cap, of course.

One detail that is never mentioned about Robison, though, is perhaps the most telling; he is the first artistic director of the Playhouse to be born after the theater was founded. When he was born in 1966, the Playhouse was already 6 years old.

For him, regional theater is not some radical new idea that has taken hold. It's something he has known every day of his life. He was nearing the end of fourth grade when the Vietnam War ended. He has grown up in a completely different world from any of his predecessors.


And you can be certain that difference will show up on the stage ... and off the stage, as well.

As he talks about theater, it's clear that he loves all sorts of plays. But the concept he keeps returning to is the idea of growing the audience. Not just a larger audience. But he wants to diversify it as well.

There's nothing new about the idea. Nearly every artistic director talks about attracting a more racially diverse audience, getting younger people into the theater ... families, too.

But Robison seems passionate about it in a way that few other artistic leaders are. It might be that generational thing again. It might be the fact that he has young children.

Whatever the case, he seems determined to make the Playhouse an integral part of the community in a way that it rarely has been before.

"It's different now than it was 20 or 30 years ago," he says.

"You have to get out into the community. Not just once or twice. You have to do it over and over and over again. And you have to do it in every part of the city and region, not just the ones where your subscribers live or shop."

It's expensive, though. And labor-intensive. Sometimes, it may involve incredibly complex residencies. Other times, it may just be a series of highly visible promotional appearances.

"The important thing is to be there, to get off this high and meet people where they live and shop and play."

His first effort?

Traveling Swordsmen

"We're promoting The Three Musketeers (opening Sept. 1), so we've put together a traveling team of swordsmen. In this case, they are all men, but we have several women sword-fighting in the show. Throughout August and September, we're going to take this team and show up in dozens of unexpected places around the city."

He won't say exactly where yet.

Fountain Square?

"Of course," he says. But ever the jock, he's determined that his swashbucklers will show up at events he'd be likely to attend.

"I think you're likely to see us at some high-level sporting events, too. But I can't say any more at this point. Let's just say I want to get in there and cross swords with Roger Federer."