Theater's Bob Hedley honored with Barrymore lifetime achievement award
For Temple University theater professor Robert Hedley, it’s been all theater, all the time as a director, playwright, developer of new plays and educator.
During a career that has spanned more than four decades, he has directed productions around the country, mentored nationally known playwrights, headed the departments at Temple, Villanova and Iowa, and was founding artistic director of The Philadelphia Company (now the Philadelphia Theatre Company — a name change that he views as redundant and unnecessary: “I wanted our company to be as familiar to audiences as the gas company!”).
On Monday evening, Oct. 23, Hedley will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Barrymore Awards ceremony in recognition of his contributions to the Philadelphia theater community. The Barrymores are the region’s major professional theater honors, the local equivalent of New York’s Tony Awards.
It was the mid-1970s when Hedley and Jean Harrison, a well-known New York actor, founded The Philadelphia Company, the first of the city’s fledgling performing arts companies dedicated to developing and producing new work.
“We wanted playwrights to be able to write and get their plays staged,” Hedley recalled. “But we had no money, and Jean and I took turns laying each other off so one of us could collect unemployment.”
They enlisted their friends for the casts, and often they were Equity actors who would perform using other names. The theater itself kept moving, wherever they could find a place in which to stage a play: unused spaces in buildings along Broad Street; outdoors at Newmarket in Society Hill; in the City Hall courtyard, where performances occasionally were interrupted when aides from the Sheriff’s Office marched prisoners through.
Although his directing credits span the country from the Marin Theatre Company in California to the Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre and La Mama in New York, it is in mentoring new and emerging playwrights and developing their work that Hedley has found the greatest rewards.
“It’s a fine line that you walk when a playwright presents you with a draft of a play.
You have to be careful to offer suggestions without re-writing or insisting on your own ideas that could kill a project. What you want to do is tease out the possibilities and make sure the writers’ great ideas are getting from their imaginations to the page.
“People think someone sits down on a Saturday night and by Monday morning, they’ve written a play. Most scripts germinate for years and go through multiple drafts before finding their way into production.”
Among the theater luminaries he’s mentored is the Tony Award-winning David Rabe,
a graduate student of Hedley’s at Villanova in the late 1960s and early ’70s. There, Rabe began working on “Sticks and Bones,” which went on to receive the Tony for Best Play in 1971. His Tony-nominated (1976) “Streamers” began life as “Frankie” in Philadelphia, directed by Hedley for The Philadelphia Company. In New York, Hedley directed Rabe’s “In the Boom Boom Room,” a 1973 Tony nominee.
“Bob Hedley was an astute critic and honest supporter of the work I was embarked upon,” said Rabe. “His support was always meaningful, and to challenge him you had to find and stand upon your own convictions.”
Other playwriting “offspring” of Hedley’s tutelage include Rebecca Gilman, whose “Spinning into Butter” is now a film in post-production starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Miranda Richardson and Beau Bridges; Naomi Wallace, a MacArthur Fellow, whose “One Flea Spare” was featured in this year’s Fringe Festival; Sean Clark, who directs the graduate screenwriting program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and whose network television credits include writing for “Northern Exposure” and “The Commish.”
While he is humbled at the recognition of the Barrymore Award, Hedley is not backing off of his very full life of achievement. In fact, he hopes to work on some of his own writing projects while continuing to teach and work with students on the development of their plays.
“I love the Temple students,” he enthused. “They’re a diverse group, hard-working young people to whom their education means a lot. They’ve sweated it out to get here. There’s something so right about earning it.”
Kind of like the winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Barrymore Award.
— Harriet Goodheart