A Villanova University Law Professor Keeps Irish Theater Alive

Professor John Cannon co-founded the Irish Heritage Theatre as an ode to his identity.

 Photo by: Tessa Marie Images

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” 

That is not one of John Cannon’s favorite Shakespeare quotes. The line, from Henry VI, would be out of place in the halls of Villanova’s law school, where he has been a professor for 45 years.

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Acting is Cannon’s other lifelong passion. His first role was as the lead in the production of Finian’s Rainbow at West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys. “It was a good way to meet girls,” he says. “I’m pretty sure that I got the role of Finian because it was an Irish part. For some strange genetic reasons, I could do a brogue.”

Cannon’s familial connection to Ireland is several generations old, but it remains a strong part of his identity. It’s why he co-founded the Irish Heritage Theatre.

An independent troupe that performs in Center City’s smaller theaters, IHT was incorporated in 2010, and it staged its first production, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, in 2012. Written by Brian Friel in 1964, the drama takes place in County Donegal, and despite its jolly title, the play is a serious reverie on the people and relationships that the main character will leave behind when he departs for America. That solemnity characterizes IHT’s performances, Cannon says. “Many of these plays are grim, which troubles me, but it is a difficult thing to get around,” he says. “There is a tough history.”

That history is highlighted in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. IHT performed the set to mark the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising, an armed rebellion aimed at overthrowing English rule in Ireland. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteer Force and others—including 200 women—held off the British army for six days. Outmanned and outgunned, the effort failed, and repercussions were fierce. The Easter Rising may be unfamiliar to those who associate Ireland with leprechauns and Guinness, but it is an important chapter in the country’s centuries-long quest for independence.

The Irish Heritage Theatre faces its own struggles. Creatively, it is on solid ground. In addition to Philadelphia, Here I Come! and the Dublin Trilogy, it held critically acclaimed productions of Molly Sweeney and three one-acts by Lady Augusta Gregory. Its next production is another Friel play, Making History, opening in May.

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But making the theater troupe financially viable has been a battle. The company needs more patrons, more audience members, and more publicity to attract both. “If we can do that, we will have a future,” Cannon says. “There is a market for what we do.”

But the region’s theater market is a tough one in which to compete. IHT is up against an Avenue of the Arts that’s overflowing with Broadway productions, dance, opera, and many kinds of musical performances. Philadelphia’s rich performing-arts scene is fantastic, but Cannon remembers the independent community-theater groups that thrived before the cultural renaissance of the early 1990s. “There were always big Broadway productions at the Shubert, the Forrest, the Walnut—which, at that time, was a roadhouse, not a resident company—and they got the pre-Broadway shows and the bigger runs,” Cannon says. “But there were also local companies—all nonprofessional—performing in community theaters all over the city and suburbs.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, those smaller troupes did avant-garde theater—plays written by up-and-coming playwrights, political pieces, and risqué comedies. Adding those influences to the city’s artistic mix produced a better creative stew, Cannon believes. Sheer entertainment is a wonderful thing, but theater can also be a place for audiences to hear different voices and viewpoints, expanding their horizons.

Center City has independent theater troupes—like EgoPo, run by Haverford College alumnus Lane Savadove—and risk-taking theaters like the Wilma and InterAct that present lesser-known yet thought-provoking productions. “However, there has come to be so much professional theater—and such a variety of it—that, generally speaking, nonprofessional theaters can’t compete in Center City,” Cannon says.

But they can in the suburbs. Cannon lists People’s Light, Act II Playhouse and Footlighters, each of which has its own following.

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Would IHT move to the Main Line? There’s a big enough Irish community to support its work. Cannon says that anything is possible, especially in the absence of John Gallagher, another of IHT’s co-founders. Gallagher was an associate professor of English and theater at Saint Joseph’s University and, for more than 30 years, was a professor of communication at Montgomery County Community College. He died in July 2016 at age 84.

Cannon and Gallagher were friends for decades, and losing Gallagher has deeply affected Cannon. “He was one of these people who could do anything in the theater,” Cannon says. “He would move into the theater and live there until the production was not only up but finished. John was the real driving force of Irish Heritage and a lover of all things Irish, particularly theater.”

And so it is that Cannon finds himself, at age 78, fully committed to the success of IHT, which, in many ways, is still in its infancy. But he’s surrounded by good company, including director Peg Mecham and actress Kirsten Quinn, both professors at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Kate Danaher, a retired Rosemont College professor and an award-winning screenwriter who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Can this feisty band of theater lovers make a go of their independent troupe? The odds are on their side. After all, they are Irish.

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