A Man Of Many Plans

Posted: November 28, 1990

When Robert Hedley chaired the theater department at the University of Iowa, he had to make airline reservations six months in advance if he wanted to join the herd of students and faculty leaving Iowa City's small airport at Thanksgiving.

After nine years in Iowa City, which he calls "250 miles from everywhere," he yearned for a more urban situation. In August, he became chairman of the theater department on the very urban campus of Temple University.

Does the conjunction of the name Hedley and the word theater strike a chord? Yes, this is the same Robert Hedley who headed Villanova University's theater department from 1967 to 1970, then founded and ran the Philadelphia Company, forerunner of the Philadelphia Theater Company, from 1974 to 1979.

The Philadelphia Company was noted for putting on new plays. At Iowa, Hedley headed the playwrights' workshop, where plays were written and produced by "playwrights who hadn't had much success, who were experimenting with the form." At Temple, not surprisingly, he plans to continue staging new work.

"My interests are in new writing and new production, so there is no question we will be doing that," said Hedley. He said he would like to mount plays by such innovative writers as Irene Fornes and Jeff Jones, both of whom attended the Iowa workshop. But, he said, there always will be a place at Temple for more standard works with lots of meaty roles for student actors - plays like The American Clock, the university's first production of the season, featuring graduate actors. It opens tomorrow for a two-weekend run at the university's Tomlinson Theater.

Production of new plays is one of several innovations that Hedley foresees for the Temple program. The soft-spoken, relaxed department head doesn't lay out a specific, detailed plan of action, but a conversation with him makes it clear that he's contemplating substantial changes in the curriculum and the works the school produces.

One of his first goals is to put Temple graduate theater students in closer touch with professional theater. "Our students have not had enough opportunity to work with professional productions," he said. "Some of them have done great in the profession, but you need an ongoing program where you can put them in touch with a lot of professsionals."

To accomplish this, Hedley wants to have students work with professional theaters in Philadelphia - or, if it cannot be arranged, to have the university establish a professional theater of its own. "I think we will know more about which way we want to go by January," he said.

In line with this emphasis on professional training, Hedley would like to change the three-year graduate acting curriculum into a program of two years of course work and performance in university productions and one year of working professionally. "The proof of the degree will be: Can you successfully function in the theater world?" he said.

It has been the practice at Temple to stage productions on two levels - one cast primarily from the ranks of the 30 graduate acting students, the other with actors drawn from the 150 or so undergraduates in the department. Beginning next season, Hedley said, all theater students will be eligible to audition for all the department's productions. This policy, practiced at Iowa, will permit a wider choice of plays, give the graduates more chance to act, and provide the undergraduates a chance at bigger roles.

Hedley doesn't intend to alter Temple's focus on acting and design, although he says he'd institute a playwriting program "if suddenly we had money to do it; this is a very poor school." He does plan to bring in

playwrights for residencies, both to produce their work and to expose aspiring actors to the thinking of contemporary writers.

"We are providing professional training for people we assume are not going to go out and perpetuate what has been done in the past," Hedley said. ''Things have changed from the time when actors were simply passive folk who more or less did what they were supposed to do . . . (Playwrights today) are interested in actors who are quick and intellectual, who have some thoughts about the material."

On the day he was interviewed, Hedley had just completed a proposal for a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to set up a master teachers-in- design program. The program, which would bring nontraditional designers employing the latest technology to the campus, would be new to Temple.

New, too, is the idea of the theater department's seeking outside funding. Not only is such a step necessary for a department in a financially strapped school such as Temple, Hedley said, but obtaining a grant from a high-profile source such as the NEA would establish the reputation "of a school that has good enough ideas to interest a national foundation."

Hedley, 54, is a native Canadian who graduated from the University of Alberta and did graduate work at the University of Texas. After heading Villanova's theater program, he earned his doctorate from New York University while keeing active in Philadelphia theater.

He left the Philadelphia Company to become an independent theater director in New York, where he also worked with the New York Shakespeare Festival. He was ready to move to California to pursue directing opportunities when he was offered the position at the University of Iowa.

"It was a mess," he said of that school's theater department. "It was a great program to come into because they wanted you to be active."

A Temple news release boasts that the Iowa theater program is now ranked sixth in the country, although Hedley discounts such rankings as pretty meaningless.

Hedley knows many members of the Temple theater faculty from his previous stay in Philadelphia. "I think this department is an excellent department which is very modest," he said. "There is a shyness in this department about declaring what it is good at."

One of the department's problems, he said, stems from the provisional leadership it had after Neil Bierbower, who had headed the department since 1985, resigned in the spring of 1989. William West, a professor in the department, served as acting chairman until a permanent successor was found.

"When you've been going for a long time thinking that next year there would be a new chair, you sort of slip and don't take any new initiatives," Hedley said. "There is a slackening off."

No more, however. "It's a good place to be in," he said of his new post.

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