A moving return to Villanova Theatre

Emily Triebwasser

“Vasey was the heart of campus 40 years ago,” Bob Hedley says with a smirk.

“You wouldn’t be able to find your way around Villanova in the ’60s.”

It comes as no surprise that he considers the 1960s his heyday.

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Villanova Theatre, Hedley returns to direct “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which is coincidentally the play that he directed at Villanova 40 years ago.

Surrounded by archives and fraying programs of past plays, Hedley reclines in a desk chair and straightens his white baseball cap.

He exudes a striking dichotomy of both aptitude and spontaneity and gazes at the ceiling as if recalling distant memories.

“Some of my absolute happiest times were in the Play Box,” he says.

Play Box?

“Oh, it was before your time,” he says with a laugh. “It was probably before your parents’ time.”

The Play Box, located where Connelly Center now stands, was home to the Villanova Theatre before it moved to its current address in Vasey Hall. Hedley describes it as a “shack” and the “worst kind of little hut you could ever imagine.”

“It was this strange place where we did wacky things,” he says. “We were a very close-knit family, and we had an absolute blast.”

Hedley taught in the theatre department until the early 1970s.

Since his departure from the University, he has directed professional shows in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Though seemingly similar, directing student theatre and professional theatre are two separate ballparks.

“In New York, I was casting a woman of 50 for a small role,” he says.

“I had three days of auditions for that role, and every day was absolutely filled with auditions. There aren’t that many roles, but there are a lot of people.”

Student theatre is a bit less selective. Rather than auditioning hundreds of potential actors, Hedley is given a mere handful.

“I feel very lucky that the people I did get happen to be very good for these roles,” he says.

Directing student productions forces Hedley to wear another hat as well: that of a teacher.

It is here that he can mold young and ambitious talent into experienced professionals.

Not only does he create award-winning casts and productions, but he also launches careers.

“I’m a teacher and have taught throughout much of my life, and I’ve dealt with students who are every bit as creative and talented as professionals,” he says.

The payoffs never cease.

“One of my students got the Macarthur Genius Award,” he says.

“Several of them have gotten Tonys or other awards. There are a lot of them who have gone on to do great things.”

He pauses and reflects. “In fact, I just recently read a review of one of my former student’s latest novels. Seeing that success is tremendous. As a teacher, that’s what keeps you going. It’s downright wonderful.”

Hedley smiles as if reviewing an unlimited database of his students’ success stories.

His simultaneously calm and tenacious demeanor is precisely the combination required to be an effective teacher. He has a trustworthy ethic and a compassionate heart. And his students don’t ever forget it.

“I had a severe heart attack two years ago and was in the hospital for 70 days,” he says. “I’ve got shopping bags full of cards from all my old students. Whatever they’re doing, wherever in the world they may be, they somehow understand how meaningful it is to hear from them.”

Villanova has always remained in the back of his mind.

“There were a lot of good reasons to come back,” he says. “I’ve always been very close to this department, and when this idea came up, I liked the fact that my production was the first production ever in Vasey Hall. Having opened the thing, I thought it would be great to do now.”

“Long Day’s Journey into Night” follows a mother with an addiction to morphine. Despite using the exact same script, Hedley has given this production a different feel.

“It’s a play I’m very happy to revisit because I understand it very differently now than I did then,” he says.

“Then, it was a special situation. Now, this is relatively common, so it’s a different take on the very same material. It’s not because the play changed. It’s because I changed, and the world changed.”

Along with the newfound understanding of the play’s controversial themes, Hedley’s directing style had to change a bit.

“Then, the stage was situated in front of the audience, and now the stage has audience members on three sides,” he says.

“The actors are very close to you – six feet, seven feet away. The original stage is more grand and distanced, but you’re not looking at someone as close, so that you watch how true it is to life. The notion that you’re seeing people functioning at such a short distance means the acting has to be extraordinarily real, extraordinarily well-felt. And any moments that are artificial, you can easily pick up because you’re so close to it.”

Although 40 years has changed the campus, the students and the academics, the Villanova Theatre continues to thrive.

“Vasey may have been the heart of the campus in the ’60s,” he says, “But then again, we like to think that the theatre department is always the heart of the campus.”

“Long Day’s Journey into the Night” opened yesterday at the Villanova Theatre in Vasey Hall.