Repost: The Art that is Life

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The Art That Is Life

This article is a repost from Brandywine CVB about our Executive Director Penelope Reed and our history in Rose Valley. 

The Hedgerow Theatre engages minds and hearts in shared expression to be a cultural resource for audiences of all ages.

Theatres can be wonderful places. They are places of imagination and inspiration. They can deliver social commentary…or timeless life messages…or whimsy and fun. They can bond an audience together for a few hours and take them on a journey far away from the four walls that surround their seats. There are many magical theatres like this in our region, but Hedgerow stands apart with one unique quality.

It is truly part of the community’s DNA.

To understand the mutualistic relationship that the Hedgerow Theatre has with the community of Rose Valley, one needs to know the story of how both came to exist…and that story begins all the way back with the Native Americans, the Quakers, the Industrial Revolution and a man named Will Price.

Hedgerow Theatre is located on Rose Valley Road – which is a narrow, curvy, up-and-down lane really – and many locals use to travel from Media to Wallingford or on to Chester or even Philadelphia. Well, a few hundred years ago, it was no different. The ground on which the theater now stands was a trading spot for the Minquas and Lenni Lenape tribes to conduct business with the Europeans. Eventually, the Quakers arrived in the area, fostering a deeply held belief system that all people are created free and equal.

It was into this type of environment that Will Price – a student of Philadelphia architect Frank Furness – decided to buy 80 acres of land in Rose Valley in 1901 to establish his iconic arts and crafts community. The Arts and Crafts Movement had gained momentum as a reaction to the industrial revolution which had quickly changed the agrarian/craftsman system in America to one where almost everything was mass produced with little skilled craft involved. With the backing of a group of wealthy liberal Philadelphians who were interested in social reform, Price designed a new community based on the Arts and Crafts movement’s vision of “the art that is life.”

Famous artisans came to live and create in this almost medieval-like community where everything was done by hand and people worked together. Art, creativity and craftsmanship were very important. Price and his four architect siblings designed many of the area’s homes and buildings. They would also act out different plays in the natural setting of the countryside. It would be into this type of community – one with a rich artistic sensibility – that Hedgerow would come.

As it would turn out, the commercial side of Price’s experiment would not be a success. However, the social and artistic components were. From its beginning, Rose Valley attracted people who saw an opportunity to use their creative talents in their living environment. The Rose Valley Folk (which still exists today) was initially designed to deal with governmental issues but became more of a social organization. They would organize all types of social events, including elaborate productions in the Guild Hall with community members joining together to write plays, design sets, make costumes, print programs…and, of course, perform.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Jasper Deeter was a top director and actor at the Provincetown Players, a seminal theater in New York.  He was getting tired of all the “non-theater” work he had to do as part of the New York business of theater and came to visit his sister who was in a show with the Rose Valley Players. The community’s rich artistic heritage of must have grabbed a hold of him because in 1922, this is where Deeter decided to build his theater. Much like when Will Price attracted artisans from all of the country, theater artists were soon traveling from all over the country for the chance to be a part of Deeter’s theater.  The theatre quickly grew into being America’s seminal repertory theater. It became the only American theater in which George Bernard Shaw would allow his plays to be staged. A public transit system was established to bring theater-goers from New York to Philadelphia to the trolley to Media. To put it bluntly, Hedgerow was a big deal.

In 1985, an arson fire devastated the Hedgerow building and the community. All that was left of the theatre was a shell and for the first time in 63 years, the fairytale dell in Rose Valley was dark – but not for long. In 1990, the Rose Valley community asked Penelope Reed – a student of Deeter’s and whose mother had once been the theatre manager – to come save Hedgerow.

Reed’s vision for Hedgerow included making it – once again – a strong, repertory theatre. A repertory theatre is a theatre that has a specific building and a group of actors who stay in residence and build a repertoire of material. The theatre performs the shows the actors love and repeat the shows the audience loves.

“It’s very known in Europe,” Reed says. “It’s kind of like a jazz group that plays together. The idea is the more you play together you’re going to sound better, so its very collaborative in nature. So instead of a star turn, everyone is important.”

It would be this repertory tradition that would enable Hedgerow to come back to life. With tremendous community support – from everything to clearing the debris of that 1985 fire to voluntarily staffing the theatre to lending financial support, Rose Valley drew on its heritage once again and made sure that the transformed mill was a place “for the art that is life.”

“Hedgerow is called the heart of the community,” Reed continues. “When I first came, people said Hedgerow is in the community but not of the community. So I worked very hard to make it of the community.”

Today, the mission of the theatre is not just to entertain their audiences, but to grow their minds. There are two major aspects of Hedgerow: education and production. In addition to the theater building, Hedgerow has a school house up the hill with 2.3 acres. There are six residences, two rehearsal halls, a set shop, a costume shop, and – hopefully soon – a big, black-box theatre. There are year-round classes for adults and children and lots of summer camps. None of this is new to Hedgerow…the classes started in the 1930s in order to fill Deeter’s need for trained actors. In the 40s, it became a well-known school and resource for returning GIs.

During the year, the theatre produces a diverse repertoire. There are classics, such as Don Quixote (on stage May 7 – June 7), mysteries like “A Murder Has Been Arranged” (February 19 – March 29), and master performances such as “Post Haste” and “Underneath the Lintel” (April 9-26.) There are also comedies, cabarets, childrens’ performances and a local tradition – “A Christmas Carol” for several weeks in December. The popular children’s performance series called “It’s Storytime!” celebrates traditional tales with a twist on Saturday mornings at 11am. This spring, “Snow White” takes over the stage from February 28 through March 21. Then, from May 16 through June 16, Dorothy and friends will journey to “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I took my daughter to Hedgerow to see “Charlotte’s Web and we absolutely loved it,” says Kathy Krueger of Springfield, PA. “I almost went back to see it again. The theatre has the greatest old world charm, and the cast gave out lemonade and animal crackers after the show. It was just lovely!”

Hedgerow also takes the show on the road and conducts numerous outreach programs throughout the region. They have an “Arts to the Schools, Schools to the Arts” program and a “Arts to the Seniors” program which includes a very popular collection of songs from the decades gone by. Every year, Hedgerow has a collaboration with the Brandywine River Museum and performs shows there. This is all done – in addition to the full calendar of shows put on at the theatre – with about 15 staffers, 6-8 residents, a phenomenal board of directors, a dedicated guild (groupies, basically) and 150 volunteers.

“We’re trying to grow what we do best which is a residency company working together,” Reed explains. “The people we have here love doing more than just one area of theatre. They love sharing it with others. There’s a kind of generativity around here.

“We have great people,” she continues. “Not “star turn” people who are all about self but people who are all about others. Because of that, more work happens. We try to keep healthy egos that are collaborative.”

Reed goes on to explain that a core belief at Hedgerow is establishing a connection between the actor and the audience. It’s not just about actors performing for people, but really being a part of their lives. Actors are in the parking lot before the performance assisting with parking and they greet audience members after the shows in the lobby.

“I love visiting Hedgerow Theater because I have never seen a show that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy,” says Marni Dougherty of Bensalem, PA. “I also love the old stone building it is housed in – it creates such a pleasing atmosphere with the actors and actresses greeting you after the show as you are leaving. There are even soft drinks and cookies during intermission. It is such a humble environment with so much good will toward its visitors.”

Just as the actors at Hedgerow are called on to do many jobs, so too does the building itself. When not being used for performances, the rustic beauty of the old grist mill makes for a terrific corporate event location or banquet space.

In the summer of 2014, the theatre unveiled a long-awaited, glass-enclosed welcome center that allows all theatre-goers to enter the theatre in greater comfort and elegance. Called Wyncote Way, guests now have a straight, level, paved path from the parking lot to the entrance. The atrium opens into a gorgeous new lobby that allows for a flexible meeting space and easier handicap access while keeping the natural setting as a star attraction.

“We now have a truly functioning, kind of unusual theatre and we’re choosing to keep it that way…people are very fond of it,” Reed says. “We are a real community resource. It’s a professional playhouse which isn’t too big. We love the intimacy. You can come see a play, you can have a party, you can have business meetings, you can combine a party and a play, you can rent out a play. Because it’s so intimate and in nature, it really can get you away and be a retreat.”

After almost a century of drama – including a creative opening, a talented cast of characters, unforeseen plot twists and challenges…the Hedgerow Theatre is poised to raise the curtain on an ambitious second act. With a beautiful set and a strong supporting cast, Hedgerow promises to bring the community together through its artistic endeavors for a very long time – and thus living out the legacy that Will Price envisioned for the community of Rose Valley, bringing “the art that is life” to everyone in the community.



Some information for this article gathered from RoseValleyBorough.org, RoseValleyMuseum.org, HedgerowTheatre.org

If You Go

The 132-seat Hedgerow Theatre is located in an historic old mill at 64 Rose Valley Road in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. For tickets or more information, call 610-565-4211 or visit HedgerowTheatre.org.

For a “Did You Know? Box

1)  At the 2001 National Theatre Communications Group conference held in Philadelphia, Hedgerow was lauded as the Mother of all Philadelphia theatres.

2)  Wharton Esherick – who has been called the “dean of American craftsmen” – designed a staircase, a banquet table and chairs (which he made in exchange for his daughter’s acting lessons) inside the Hedgerow Theatre.

3)  The book “A Sustainable Theatre: Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow” by Barry Witham won the 2013 John W. Frick Award for best book on American theatre and drama.

Famous Hedgerow alumni include:
Ann Harding – a founder of Hedgerow and an Oscar nominee for Best Actress in the 1930 screen adaptation of Philip Barry’s play “Holiday.”

Richard Basehart – studied at Hedgerow from 1938-1942, performed on Broadway and in Hollywood including the television series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” He was also the narrator of the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Van Heflin – enrolled in Hedgerow in 1931 and made his film debut opposite Katharine Hepburn in the 1936 film “A Woman Rebels.” He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Johnny Eager (1942).

Keanu Reeves – studied acting at Hedgerow in the summer of 1972 and has starred in many popular films, including The Matrix trilogy, Speed and Point Break.