The graduate theatre program began in 1958. Its first chairperson, Dr. Dick Duprey, was teaching in the English department and producing plays as an extracurricular activity on a make-shift stage in the Villanova Field House. Dr. Duprey’s mission in those early years was to create a theatre that addressed the modern spiritual dilemma. At that time, the department mounted the work of some of the most intellectually challenging playwrights of the time: Bertolt Brecht, Jean Giraudoux, Ugo Betti, and Jean Anouih.
After Dr. Duprey retired in 1970, Dr. Robert Hedley took over chairmanship of the department and Villanova Theatre was launched into a new period of experimentation. Dr. Hedley was influenced by Polish Laboratory Theatre director Jerry Grotowski and Richard Schechner of New York City’s Performance Group; his focus in the early 1970’s was on emotionally and politically charged plays of the period performed in a reconstructed bleacher-surrounded performance space in Vasey Hall.
Following Dr. Hedley’s two-year reign, Dr. James J. Christy assumed chair of the department for the next 14 years. Dr. Christy continued producing experimental theatre pieces while emphasizing a strong base in the classics. He also created the Villanova Summer Shakespeare Company, which enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim through the 1980s.
In 1985, Dr. Joanna Rotté assumed chair of the department, bringing to the department her experience in Eastern theatre and work with legendary theatre pioneers Stella Adler and Harold Clurman. Under her direction, the department widened its focus to include the study of plays by Japanese and Chinese playwrights, as well as works by women and minorities.
In 1992, Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., became chairperson of the department and spent the next 14 years crafting a season that balanced contemporary and classic plays and directing the popular annual musical. In June 2006, Father Donohue became Villanova University's thirty-second President and Rev. Richard G. Cannuli, O.S.A., became chair of the department. In June 2011, Rev. David Cregan, O.S.A., Ph.D. became the newest chair of the Theatre Department.
The most visible aspect of the theatre department is the four-play season produced each year for both the university community and the greater Philadelphia region. With selections culled from a broad range of contemporary and classic plays and musicals, Villanova Theatre’s productions are directed by faculty and guest artists, and designed by resident and freelance designers. Graduate students, supervised by a full-time production staff, are the mainstay of the season, serving as actors, stage managers, and members of the crew.
In the years since Dr. Duprey’s make-shift stage at the Field House and Dr. Hedley’s 70-seat experimental theatre-in-the-round, the department has grown into a 180-seat thrust stage in Vasey Hall which welcomes over 7,000 audience members each year.
If you walk by the theatre in Vasey Hall, day or night, you will see students building sets, carrying armloads of costumes, reupholstering furniture, hanging stage lights, and selling tickets.
Villanova Theatre productions are reviewed by the Philadelphia media and supported by a yearly audience comprised of students, faculty, staff, Philadelphia theatre-goers, and over 700 loyal subscribers. The department is an active member of many cultural organizations, including the American College Theatre Festival, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which administers the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre.
Since 1995, the department has received 49 nominations and six Barrymore Awards. Two of the department’s most acclaimed productions in recent years were Chicago (2002) and Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika (1997). Chicago, directed by Father Donohue, received nine nominations and three awards for Lead Actress in a Musical, Supporting Actor in a Musical, and Direction of a Musical. Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika, directed by theatre professors James J. Christy and Harriet Power, received eight nominations and three awards for Ensemble, Supporting Actress in a Play, and Direction of a Play.