This interior photo taken in 1952 shows the 1920 interior designed by William Lee. (Photograph courtesy of the Theatre Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.)
It’s the oldest theatre in America; first opened in 1809 as The New Circus with equestrian acts; home to pre-Broadway premiers including “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Porgy and Bess,” “A Raisin in the Sun;” site of a 1976 presidential debate and launching ground for acclaimed actors and playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon.
Its first theatrical production, “The Rivals,” took place in 1812. President Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette were in the audience on opening night. The “curtain call” as we know it today has its roots at the Walnut—beginning with 19th century actor Edmund Kean. And stars such as Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Jessica Tandy, Jane Fonda and many more have graced the stage of this iconic structure that influenced the course of theatre in America.
In the late 20th century, the property at 9th & Walnut began an evolution from a struggling rental facility in 1982 to a national and world-renowned artistic hub that showcases five main stage productions each year (straight plays and musicals), an annual series of independent studio shows, a kids’ series, theatre school, thriving summer camp and apprentice and internship programs.
With a subscriber base of 50,000, the current production of the upbeat musical “Mamma Mia!” concluding July 15, will mark the culmination of the Walnut Street Theatre Company’s 35th season.
One would be remiss in this history lesson without shining a spotlight on a man behind the scenes: Bernard Havard. As president and producing artistic director, Havard’s name has become synonymous with the regional theatre’s celebrated stature. He is internationally regarded as one of America’s leading theatre producers.
The 77-year-old London native, who lives with his wife, Judy, and son, Brandon, 19, a block and a half from the theatre, explains that his role as both artistic and managing leader is quite unusual. Most theatres, he notes, separate the functions into two distinct jobs. He is quick to credit Walnut’s success story under his tenure to an amazing team effort.
Havard works in close collaboration with company members to bring world-class productions to audiences. Some shows he directs, such as this season’s “The Humans,” which won the Tony Award in 2016 for Best Play.
The actors, Havard elaborates, are not part of their production company. Every show is individually cast. It is this casting that Havard describes as the most critical component to a show’s success. It’s a skillset he possesses and the one in which he is the most proud. Having been an actor provides him with the insight to match precise talent with the demands of each character. Of course directing is also of pivotal importance, he explains. But without a properly cast show, even the best direction can only go so far.
Subscribers have become accustomed to seeing actors appear in numerous productions. “I think it’s great to have high quality local theatre,” said David Griscom of Newtown (Bucks County), a subscriber for nearly 20 years. “You don’t have to go to New York to see great shows. The prices are very reasonable and there are all sorts of benefits.” No surprise that the Walnut is the most subscribed theatre company in the world.
Havard is honored to lead this historic gem. “Luck has played a role in my life,” he said during a recent phone interview from his second home in Somers Point, NJ. Luck was on his side when accepting the job at the Walnut in 1982. Previously, he worked in various capacities in the theatre in Canada and the United States: managing director, actor, stage manager, producer. America has been his home since 1977.
When he interviewed with the board of trustees, the head of the search committee was the late Ed Rome, then managing partner of the law firm Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley (now Blank Rome LLP). Havard didn’t mince words about his goals. “I wasn’t interested in a booking house, which is what the Walnut had been,” he recalled. “I was interested in producing. I had to explain (to the board) the difference.” He told them: “‘A booking house is buying a cake off the shelf. I’m interested in baking the cake from scratch.’”
And so he has. “It happened that day,” remembered Havard, reflecting on the birth of the Walnut Street Theatre Company. Havard was given a year to work out the details of establishing the not-for-profit, self-producing regional theatre, which debuted in 1983. He credits Rome and a $3 million donation from the William Penn Foundation with helping him bring the idea to fruition.
“It was a gamble,” admitted Havard, who had no way of predicting the success that would follow. Yet staying true to his artistic passion was a commitment to which he has rarely strayed. Theatre, one might say, is in his blood.
Havard’s maternal ancestors had been involved in acting for over 250 years. Artistry also runs deep on his father’s side. His grandfather, Louis Havard, was a wood sculptor at Buckingham Palace in the 1920s. He had been working for King Leopold of Belgium when the highly successful firm of Rorke & Sons, which was refurbishing part of the palace, recruited him. In fact, this is how his parents, Maurice Havard (son of Louis) and Celia Rorke (whose family owned Rorke & Sons) got together.
From the age of seven, Havard attended an all-boys Catholic boarding school in London. From as far back as he can remember, he was drawn to the stage. “I played a lot of girls’ roles,” said Havard of his childhood entrée to the craft. “I had a high soprano voice and I was fine with those roles.” Suffice it to say, he secured multiple leads, including that of Queen Elizabeth I. In those days, he hadn’t dreamed of a theatrical career. It was merely something he enjoyed. “At that time in my life, I thought I would become a Catholic priest,” said Havard, attributing this to the influence of the priests who were educating him.
In 1953, when Havard was 12, his family immigrated to Alberta, Canada. He became immersed in amateur dramatics. At 14, he was cast as Miles in “The Innocent,” a production of the renowned Dominion Drama Festival. “The festival was held all across Canada,” explained Havard, who later studied theatre at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. However, his university life was short lived. After two years, he left college to accept a scholarship at the prestigious Banff School of Fine Arts. During the summer festival, he was cast as Lucentio in “The Taming of the Shrew.”
His mother tried to steer Havard away from the stage. “There were a lot of broken marriages and substance abuse in the theatre,” noted Havard. But her warnings didn’t deter his path. Ultimately, Havard elaborates, with a career in acting, he couldn’t control his destiny. Needing to support a young family—he has three children from his first marriage—he parlayed his livelihood away from acting. He has never looked back.
Truth be told, Havard said: “I was always a nervous actor. I suffered horribly from nerves. My one big fear is public speaking.” Clearly, a grander theatrical picture is what fate had in store.
Nurturing the Walnut has been a labor of love and so much more than any 9 to 5 job. Havard works at least 60 hours a week and is on call 24/7. He is present at rehearsals, openings, board meetings, union negotiations, fund-raising galas—whenever he is needed.
Much like the fine-tuning of any show, the facility must also be attended to. Havard says they’ve always kept up with necessary repairs and refurbishing—interior and exterior. This is evidenced by the Walnut’s imposing façade, with its 19th century columns—updated yet intact—a striking juxtaposition to the contemporary buildings that share the neighboring streetscape.
In 1998, major remodeling of the Mainstage area (orchestra & mezzanine) included all new, classic red velour seats, carpeting, upgraded lighting and sound equipment. Several years ago, the seats (1,100 in the Mainstage, 85 in the studio theatre), were again replaced.
Havard reveals news that may surprise some theatregoers. Plans are under way to build a 400-seat theatre in the round, restaurant, studios and rehearsal halls on the grounds where the parking lot to the East of the property now stands. Construction is expected to begin in late 2019. For anyone fearful of parking woes, Havard assures there is ample space across the street at Walnut Towers.
“I want people to be excited about our expansion,” said Havard. And if history is any indicator, a dramatic encore may yet be in store.
As workmen removed the old interior to build a new structure within the original walls for the 1920 renovation, they discovered a number of relics left behind from the early years of the theatre. Among them was, carefully packed away, the skull of John “Pop” Reed, a stagehand who worked at the Walnut for more than 50 years in the first half of the 1800s. Reed stipulated in his will that he wanted his skull separated from his body, duly prepared, and used to represent the skull of Yorrick in Hamlet. His wish was granted, and the skull is signed by many famous actors of the day who performed in Shakespeare’s play.