Jasper Deeter, Founding Artistic Director of Hedgerow Theatre, came to Rose Valley in 1923 with ten dollars and a dream and founded an independent company that has flourished for over 94 years. His legacy is one that hangs in the air of Rose Valley just as strongly as William Lightfoot Price. If William Lightfoot Price built Rose Valley, then Jasper Deeter has to be honored as the one who set it alight in the way that only theatre can.
From humble beginnings, Deeter was raised by an auto parts magnate hailing from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He was not an obvious success. Before setting his mind to theatre, he failed out of Dickinson College and seemed to be directionless. Inspired by James O’Neill in The Count of Monte Cristo, Deeter set his mind on theatre. From there, he grew to great success in the Broadway scene where he befriended Eugene O’Neill after starring in his play, The Exorcism. Their collaboration grew as Deeter took over the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village and convinced O’Neill to cast a black actor in the titular role of The Emperor Jones. This rocketed O’Neill’s fame as well as Deeter but a squabble over the tour of the play led Deeter out of New York.
A visit to his sister who lived in the Rose Valley Arts and Crafts community inspired Deeter to change history. After directing in the space now known as Hedgerow Theatre–formerly Guild Hall–Deeter was set on this place in history. The spirit of independent craftsmanship struck Deeter as what he needed from theater. This spirit is one that the Rose Valley Arts and Crafts Community was founded on and Deeter felt he could not start this theater anywhere else.
Deeter played a prominent role in the first forty years of Hedgerow Theatre. He played major roles and maintained the importance of an American repertory theatre where up to 12 plays could be done by the company at any time. A constellation of great American playwrights dotted this early history through their connection with Deeter. The friendship with Eugene O’Neill allowed Hedgerow to perform many of his major works, Deeter drew George Bernard Shaw to develop a majority of his works at Hedgerow. And legend tells, that Deeter taught Langston Hughes playwriting with his debut play, Mulatto .
During this early period, Deeter is interacting and working closely with Delaware Valley greats from Wharton Esherick, who built sets and consulted closely with Deeter on play choices, to Ann Harding, future 1930’s movie star, to, even, Will Price Jr. who played on our stages. Other early company members include New Woman and acclaimed illustrator Elenore Plaisted Abbott who served as a scenic painter. Hedgerow was abuzz with great minds in the suburbs of Philadelphia–a pocket fertile for new ideas.
Hedgerow only had the opportunity to grow. In 1934, Hedgerow is given the Farmhouse Studio where Deeter comes to reside. In 1958, Jasper Deeter helps found the Hedgerow Theatre School of Expression with Rose Schulman completing the pillars on which Hedgerow stands today, those of theater and arts education.
Deeter continues to play a major role in the development of Hedgerow and in 1958, appears in The Blob and later makes his mark in 4D Man. The company begins to take on its own ownership and Deeter’s presence is felt less and less as the years go by, ultimately passing away in 1972.
Having changed history through a little theatre in a pocket of explosive ideas, Hedgerow Theatre remains true to its commitment to independent thinking, original works and the intimacy that can only be found in what will forever be known as a grist mill theatre. Deeter’s legacy lives on in every show and every day at Hedgerow Theatre.