On a chilly November morning, Hedgerow Theatre is abuzz with the sounds of saws, the floor lightly coated in wood dust. On stage, actors and crew alike assemble sets, some teetering on ladders. They’re just days from the opening of their 25th annual performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and, as usual, it’s all hands on deck. “There’s a practical nature about everybody doing all of the work,” says Jared Reed, the producing artistic director.
Founded in 1923 by actor, director and producer Jasper Deeter, Rose Valley’s Hedgerow Theatre is the longest-serving repertory theater in the country. This March, it celebrates its 95th anniversary.
History is abundant within Hedgerow, which resides in a 19th-century mill. Even the people who run it are inextricably linked to its past. It’s now helmed by Reed, a fifth-generation actor. His mother, Penelope Reed, was the previous artistic director. Their family legacy there dates back almost to its inception. For both, theater is simply the family business, and they’re following in the footsteps of those before them. “This place, having a line that goes back to basically the beginning, is weird and neat and cool,” says Jared.
Penelope’s step-grandmother was with Hedgerow in its early days, and her mother began taking classes with Deeter in the early 1960s. A young Penelope soon joined in, though she spent much of her career on different stages, including the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where she was a principal actor, and New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center, as a lead actor, director and teacher. In 1991, Penelope returned to Hedgerow, where she would take up tenure as the artistic director, bringing new life to the theater. “My goal was to get the community to embrace the theater, because a lot of times they saw Hedgerow was in the community, but not of the community,” she says.
For over 20 years, Penelope worked on that goal, upping programming. Jared, meanwhile, pursued a career in New York. He’d been involved with Hedgerow, but left to attend Rutgers University and eventually Juilliard. “I did my time in New York. I did my 10 years—and I was successful—but it never was a family thing,” he says.
Jared’s early years spent at repertory theaters with his mother made him want to return. “When you’re in a company and everybody does everything, I think that’s what drew me back here,” he says.
Jared returned to Hedgerow in 2012. Over the course of the next few years, he worked with his mother before being named producing artistic director. Penelope now focuses on teaching master classes. “A lot of times, I feel I’ve been tending the place until Jared came,” she says.
Endlessly humble, Penelope shrugs off her extensive work at the theater and in the community. But her efforts haven’t gone unrecognized. Last October, she received the highly coveted Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award. Still, she seems to prefer looking to the future—and the legacy her son will forge.
That includes making some of his own changes. Jared is focused on building a core group of actors within the company. Rather than hiring outsiders, he considers the talent he has already and what shows fit with that assembly. “That’s how we’re trying to keep it going, which seems to work,” he says.
At the moment, the company consists of three acting fellows and seven principal actors, plus 15 others. “There are a lot of labors of love going on here by a lot of people,” says Jared.
“It’s about creating an artistic place for people,” adds Ann Byun, the theater’s board president. “That’s always been the DNA of Hedgerow.”
That DNA includes maintaining a robust residency program. Many of the actors live in a quasi-communal residence nearby, allowing them to focus on their craft. Jared and his wife and children are among them. “They’re all able to be together and craft together and talk together,” says Penelope.
Jared has dubbed his part in it an experiment, with the hopes of making the theater more inclusive of families. “In the future, it might be a place where we’re bringing in sort of mid-level, mid-career artists who have a partner,” he says.
That environment helps provide the ideal conditions for writing original plays for the company, which is one of Jared’s focuses. “Jared’s vision is creating our own plays, creating something intimate,” says Byun. “Going forward, the next thing is not only raising the bar of our programs, but also thinking about the kinds of programs. How do we reach older [people], younger [people]? How do we reach that community? I think that’s our next challenge.”
Those challenges are ones that both Reeds seem eager to tackle. After all, they have decades of theater knowledge to propel them—and a lineage that proves they can succeed—especially at Hedgerow.