Janet Kelsey, who at various times, has served as a costumer, director, actress, acting teacher, business manager and Managing Director of Hedgerow Theatre. She will be honored, along with legendary stage and screen actress Ann Harding, at a gala to be held Thursday, April 21, 2016 at Hedgerow Theatre.
During Ms. Kelsey’s long years of service, she worked with such outstanding talents as Jasper Deeter, Rose Schulman, Louis Lippa, Delores Tanner, New York Producer Ralph Roseman, and many others. She also taught, acted and directed many Hedgerow alums now working professionally in theatres throughout the United States. She is the mother of Hedgerow Theatre’s Producing Director Penelope Reed and grandmother of Hedgerow Theatre’s Artistic Director Jared Reed. Her daughter Juliet Grey Kelsey also teaches children’s theatre and is an actress, singer and has written several children’s shows for Hedgerow.
Janet arrived in Rose Valley in 1962 and began taking acting lessons with Hedgerow founder Jasper Deeter; she was already a seasoned performer, having performed and studied at the Wilmington Drama League. From the ninth grade on, she said “she was in every school play,” and in her senior year even earned an award from the state of Delaware for her talent. She even won a declamation contest.
Her parents wanted to send her to college but would not entertain the idea of a theater major. Her mother insisted on some form of further education to earn a living so she was sent to Beacom College to get a business degree. Ironically, when asked what advice she would give a young actor, she said she would tell them, “Go to college and get some degree [so that] you have something to fall back on.” It’s exactly the advice her mother gave her. Although her mother might not have been fond of her choice to become an actress, Ms. Kelsey said she always came to see her perform.
Ms. Kelsey did a stint in summer stock, getting her equity card while performing at the Strand Theatre in Wilmington. While there she was featured in several roles including: Anna Lucasta (Mother); Tobacco Road (Sister Essie) and Lo and Behold (Indian) John Loves Mary (the mother). From there she had a choice: try make a living as an actress in New York City or marry and she chose marriage.
She continued acting after moving to Maryland and performing in Elkton’s little theatre group. Finally too many small children and a husband demanded her complete attention. But in 1962 the family’s move to Rose Valley; living a block from Hedgerow Theatre and ¼ mile from Hedgerow House, drew her dedication to theatre; “I did what I loved doing and lucked out,” explaining that she felt very fortunate.
Of Hedgerow Theatre founder Jasper Deeter, she was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer article as Saying “He was a terrific man, a marvelous teacher. If I ever met a genius, I’d consider him to be one. Some of the things he did were so filled with such a love of theatre. The aura of this place shows in the creativity of the everyday things.”
When asked what the most important thing she learned from Hedgerow Theatre founder Jasper Deeter, she says it was the technique of “Body, Eyes, Face, Talk.” Taught by Deeter and preached by teacher Rose Schulman, this method asks the actor to let the reaction to the moment first appear in the body, then register in the eyes and face before any speech arises. It trains the actor to respond naturally in the moment and not mechanically.
In 1963, she made her debut on the Hedgerow stage in the one-act “What Shall We Tell, Caroline?” By 1964, she was not only acting, but also designing costumes. She was the costume designer in 1964 for “Prelude to France,” a world premiere directed by Rose Schulman. She said the company had “wonderful costumes at that time,” such as cut-away coats and gowns all neatly stored and catalogued with a card file system. She got Deeter’s permission and began putting her business skills to use byoverseeing rentals of costumes that brought in some much-needed money.
In 1974, she was asked to join the group of artists who would go on to found the People’s Light and Theatre Co., but she elected to remain at Hedgerow mainly because of family.
By 1978, she had received critical acclaim for many performances – such roles as Nora in Touch of the Poet (1973), Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (1976), Madame Pernelle in Tartuffe, Hesione in Heartbreak House, Mrs. Higgins in Pygmalion, Mrs. Muscat in Lilliom and Claire in Delicate Balance.
Her favorite roles she says were Hedgerow’s productions of The Seahorse (1975), Ghosts (1976) and Touch of the Poet (1973).
In 1979, she played Lady Macbeth opposite Richard Basehart; they had to add Tuesdays and Wednesdays to the regular schedule because of the audience response. Unfortunately, Mr. Basehart fell ill after two weeks and the show had to be cancelled.
She directed her first show in 1981, Count Dracula. Dolores Tanner, who was running the company at the time, “pushed me into directing,” Ms. Kelsey said. She found she enjoyed directing, particularly mystery plays. “I loved mysteries from the time I was very young,” she said, and her detailed direction and insistence on playing the stories truthfully and with the complete sincerity, made audiences look forward to those annual fall mysteries.
After Dolores Tanner’s death in 1982, Ms. Kelsey ran the company until 1984. She wanted to act and direct, not administrate so she sent a letter of resignation to the board and stayed while the Board looked for a replacement. June Prager was chosen to assume artistic control.
During Ms. Kelsey’s stint as Managing Director, Hedgerow marked its sixth decade of operation. She was interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and quoted as saying: “Ralph Roseman [a board member who was in the original company] would like to see it go back into repertory. I don’t see it right away because of the difficulty of getting enough people and places for them to live, the way prices are today.
“When repertory was in its heyday, they’d present three or four different plays a week. They lived in shacks up in the back; one was an old chicken coop. [Those] sleeping and living conditions are missing now, as we become more civilized. “You know, just buying the food for the people today is a tremendous expense. And Blue Cross and all the benefits you get when you go out and get a job make it difficult for our people to come here and earn $30 a week; they have no benefits.”
When Hedgerow was gutted by an arson fire in 1985, Ms. Kelsey was interviewed by the New York Times and quoted in their Dec. 29, 1998 edition as saying, “’I would work my fingers to the bone to get it going again. It won’t be the same; it will never be the same – but we might still be able to have a wonderful little theater down here. It wasn’t only a building; it’s all the love and caring that have gone into it for so many years.”
Still she was focused on the idea of trying “to create a living theater with people devoted to that particular art and have those people live together.”
After Prager resigned in 1986, Ms. Kelsey was back running the theatre, this time sharing the responsibility with Yvonne Vincic and Susan Wefel. In 1991, she directed “The Daughter of the Left Hand,” one of the first shows staged at the newly reopened Hedgerow Theatre following the devastating fire of 1985. Ms. Kelsey also performed in The Good Doctor that year (in 1991). During the 1990s, after her daughter, Penelope Reed, became the Artistic Director, Ms. Kelsey taught acting in addition to directing and acting.
Her stage appearances during this era included: The Good Doctor 1991 (she played the woman in A Defenseless Creature); The Royal Family 2003 (Fanny); Lysistrata 1994; Arsenic & Old Lace (Martha Brewster) 1997 and Moon Over Buffalo (Ethel) 1999.
Directing credits during this time included: The Hound of the Baskervilles 1992; Black Coffee 1993; Murder in Green Meadows 1993; Dangerous Corner 1994; Go Back For Murder 1995; Postmortem 1996; A Murder is Announced 1998; The Uninvited 1999; The Verdict 1999; Ladies in Retirement 1999; Towards Zero 2000; The Unexpected Guest 2000; Alibi 2001; Run For Your Wife 2002; Murder at the 2002; A Party to Murder 2003; Gaslight 2004; The Dinner Party 2005; Spider’s Web 2006; The Hound of the Baskervilles 2005; An Act of the Imagination 2007; Sherlock Holmes: the Final Adventure 2008; Dial M For Murder 2009 and Plaza Suite 2010.
“I loved all my Christies,” Ms. Kelsey said, referring to the productions of Agatha Christie murder mysteries that she directed. She has a special fondness for the 1994 production of “Dangerous Corner” which featured Sarah Marley, Susan Wefel, Corey Solar, Dave Bardeen, Rick Holloway, Charles Lear and Lawrence Beck. She also loved the 1993 production of “Murder in Green Meadows,” although the critics didn’t. When asked, if she had to pick one show she directed as her favorite, Ms. Kelsey replied it would be the 1983 production of Deathtrap which starred Greg Wood, John Barrett, Susan Wefel, Moira Rankin, and Richard Boddy.
When asked what piece of advice she would give a young director, she said, “Get the story behind the writing. anticipate what the playwright was trying to say. So many people want to do their own thing. I don’t think it’s right.” When asked what were the best qualities an actor should have, she named two: awareness and humility. “Humility is the big thing,” she said.