At Their Best

Exclusive interviews with local legends and legends-to-be, from Shane Victorino and Tory Burch to young actress Patricia Raven and beer guru Lew Bryson.

(page 7 of 9)

(Clockwise from top left) Villanova’s Father Richard Cannuli, Kati Lyles, Jessica Bedford and Will Windsor Erwin. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Command Performance

Eight years ago, Father Peter Donohue, chairman of the Villanova University Department of Theatre confessed to “unexpected surprise” when he became the first priest ever to win a Barrymore Award. Donohue was named the year’s Best Musical Director for Villanova’s revival of Chicago. The production earned a total of six nominations, and went on to win a second and third place for best leading actress (Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind) and best supporting actor (Mike Dees), respectively.

For the first-nighters and theater professionals who’ve made Philadelphia’s thriving regional theater scene the envy of every city outside of New York, Villanova’s victory was long overdue—and so was our recognizing it as the Best Theater School South of New York. Way back in 1995, when the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance created its annual awards for on-stage excellence, Villanova’s became the first college department to gain a Barrymore nomination. Since then, its plays, musicals and personnel have racked up 51 Barrymore nominations and won six—all while competing against professional theater companies like Center City’s Arden, Walnut and Wilma.

The church and the theater have been enemies throughout history, but they’re comfortably close at Villanova. What began as an informal drama club a little more than 50 years ago has become the Main Line’s most highly regarded undergraduate and graduate program in theater arts, producing a musical and three plays each year at standards so high they not only rival the work of the pros in Philly and Wilmington but frequently beat those companies at their own game, as well.

Villanova Department of Theatre (the school prefers the traditional British Shakespearean spelling) graduates include playwrights David Rabe, Bruce Graham and Michael Hollinger, actors Maureen Torsney-Weir and Megan Bellwoar, Lantern Theatre Company managing director Kathryn Nocero MacMillan, and Iron Age Theatre company founders John Doyle and Randall Wise.

For Jessica Bedford, a New York Shakespearean actress, getting a masters of arts at Villanova was “like being in a second family.” She found a theater program that balanced performance and academics, without the toxic egos and cutthroat competition that characterizes other schools.

She also performed in six productions at Villanova, starring as Rosalind in Villanova’s As You Like It, and also taking part in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival as Lady MacBeth and Lady Percy. Rather moving back to New York, she’ll stay on the Main Line and teach Shakespeare while auditioning for roles in other productions.

For Father Donohue, who’s now Villanova’s president, the fact that Bedford and other grads have stayed in the area is a sign of a job well done. He’s currently raising funds for a performing arts center at the school that will permit larger, grander, more elaborate productions than the ones that currently run at the Vasey Theatre.

“It’s a testament to the university, the faculty and staff, and the students they attract,” Donohue says. “I’m proud of the fact that so many graduates of the our program have stayed in the Philadelphia area, started their own theater companies and continue to contribute to the performing arts. People have come here because they were good at one thing, and they’ve discovered that they’re good at other things, too.”

—Bill Kent

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