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Villanova University


Center Stage at Villanova: President Rev. Peter M. Donohue

The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, never had any burning desire to become president of Villanova University. Formerly head of the university’s theater department and an award-winning director, he now says with a laugh, “I like to say they found me backstage and brought me out on stage to be president. It’s been the biggest acting job I’ve ever had.”

Father Donohue has been the university president since 2006. Since then, he has overseen a period of remarkable growth and transformation on the Lancaster Avenue campus in the heart of the Main Line, the product of two sweeping strategic plans. And he’s left his mark not just in the form of brick and mortar, but also on the curriculum, which places a solid emphasis on service learning.

Impressive for a reluctant aspirant to the topmost leadership position of one of the nation’s most prestigious Catholic universities.

Looking back on his ascent to the presidency, he recalls his initial response.

“Run. Run in the other direction,” he says, with characteristic wry, self-deprecating humor. “I was not really thinking about it at the time. I liked what I was doing. I enjoyed my work. I missed teaching a lot, and I still do, to this day. But my predecessor decided after 18 years to step out of the job, and it was advertised throughout the Augustinians that they were looking for a new president. Our superior, our provincial, was requesting names.”

Initially, Father Donohue’s was not one of those names. But one day an Augustinian friend asked him whether he had applied. The answer: No. But the friend persisted.

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Arts, News

Orbis Books and Villanova University’s Center for Peace and Justice Education Host Event Honoring Daniel Berrigan

NEWS RELEASE: Orbis Books, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, and Villanova University’s Center for Peace and Justice Education will host an event honoring the late Jesuit priest, poet, prophet and peace activist Daniel Berrigan on Sunday, June 9th, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Driscoll Auditorium of Villanova University. The event is free and the public is invited.

James Carroll, former Catholic priest and award-winning author, will be the featured speaker at the event. Carroll, a fellow activist and former priest on the Catholic Left, was a close friend and spiritual brother of Father Berrigan.

The event will include the unveiling of a commissioned 4- by 5-foot oil portrait of  Father Berrigan by renowned artist Ruane Manning and a book signing and talk by Jim Forest, author of At Play in the Lion’s Den, a memoir and biography of Father Berrigan, followed by a reception and entertainment by Hollis Payer on fiddle and Rob Curto  on accordion.

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Arts, Music

Outbid By a Princess, Mick Moloney to be Reunited With a Royal Collection of Irish Music

Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney recalls a time when he was still living in Philadelphia, and L.A.H. O’Donnell, who had retired from EMI Records and lived in Chestnut Hill, contacted him with an intriguing offer: a vast trove of Irish-American sheet music.

“He was offering the collection for $3,000,” Moloney says. “Well, at the time, I didn’t have $300.”

Scholar that he was and is, Moloney looked about for another suitable home for the music, which hearkened back to the Tin Pan Alley days and a little before. No one, including the Smithsonian, had the budget. That was the last he heard of the music, although he never forgot about the offer.

Ten years later, when his circumstances had improved, he called O’Donnell again.

“I asked, ‘Is that collection still for sale?’ He said, ‘Mick, you’re one week too late. Someone just bought it.’”

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Irish Dance Fever at Villanova

Villanova Irish dancer Rory Beglane

Villanova Irish dancer Rory Beglane

They came from all over, 16 college and university Irish dance teams, to compete in the first Intercollegiate Irish Dance Festival last Saturday at Villanova’s Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. It wasn’t exactly a Wildcats basketball game, but if you could have bottled up all the excitement of the dancers, parents and grandparents, university students and just plain Irish dance fans, it would have come pretty close.

Compared to the Mid-Atlantic Region Oireachtas—something like a marathon of Irish dance, drawing hundreds of dancers from throughout the region to Philadelphia over the Thanksgiving holidays—the Villanova event was relatively modest. And while the Oireachtas dancers will wear glitzy and expensive costumes, with flowing curly wigs, the dancers from Catholic University of America, the University of Dayton, Boston College and all the other schools wore outfits that probably didn’t cost their parents a month’s salary. Here and there, yes, dashes of sparkles and glitter, but otherwise subdued by comparison. No tiaras. No wigs.

The Villanova dance team was perhaps the best example of the lean and clean approach. They wore plain black slacks with black T-shirts, the team’s logo splashed across the front.

Like other Irish dance competitions, this one featured many of the traditional categories, such as four-hand dance, eight-hand dance and treble reel. But the highlight was the exhibition piece competition, in which each team showed off its unique routine, the innovative dance sets they’d typically perform during university athletic events. Some teams stuck to tried-and-true traditional. One team drew whoops and cheers when they combined Irish dance steps with C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.”

The team from the University of Dayton won that event, with Villanova coming in second, trailed by Boston College at number 3.

We have dozens and dozens of photos from the day. With luck, there will be another distinctly ‘Nova Irish dance competition next year. And every year thereafter.


Villanova Hosts First Intercollegiate Irish Dance Festival

The Villanova Irish Dance Team at practice.

The Villanova Irish Dance Team at practice.

The idea started small, but soon got pretty big. More than just big. It’s apparently a first.

Villanova’s Irish Dance Team will host an Intercollegiate Irish Dance Festival Saturday from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. at the university’s Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. Nine college and university dance teams from around the country will strut their stuff in a sanctioned competition.

When they first started talking about an Irish dance competition last semester, members of the Villanova team first thought such an event might be confined to Irish dancers who attend the university.

Then they thought: let’s really go for it.

“We wanted to do something different,” says senior Mattie Rowan, co-captain of the team from Albany, N.Y., and a double major in poli sci and Arab & Islamic Studies. “We started getting the idea in motion over the summer, and we really got going with it at the beginning of this semester. We are fairly certain that this is the first intercollegiate dance festival within North America. There are still competitions where individual dancers can compete, but in terms of university teams, this is the first of its kind.”

Turns out the Villanova dancers weren’t the only ones who thought an intercollegiate festival would be a good idea. In addition to the Villanova troupe, teams are coming from Georgetown, the Catholic University of America, the University of Dayton, Fordham, Boston College, the University of Rochester, Temple University and West Virginia University—more than 100 dancers. Says Rowan, “We have a pretty good mix.”

The university’s Irish Studies department also provided tremendous support, Rowan says.

Throughout the day, the teams will compete in four different events: the treble reel, four-hand, eight-hand, and what the organizers are calling a “fun number”—an opportunity for the teams to show off the unique routines they perform for university sporting events and other activities.

“It can be an original choreographed piece, or an adapted piece from a show like “Riverdance” or “Lord of the Dance,” Rowan says. “It should be something that you’ve made your own, modernized, and you can have free rein with it. Just have fun with it and show the versatility that can be found in Irish dance.”

Later that day, starting at 7:30, Villanova will host a Grand Irish Show, featuring RUNA and performances by the dance teams. Each of the teams will get a chance to perform.

For Rowan and all the other Villanova dancers, the first Intercollegiate Festival is more than just a chance to test their mettle—it’s an opportunity to mingle with other university-level dancers.

“Some of the dancers definitely do know each other from competing against each other, but there are also those of us who haven’t competed,” says Rowan. “You usually don’t get to interact with university dance teams. We’re really excited to meet other people who have continued their passion in college.”


In Step With the Villanova Irish Dance Team

Co-captain Rory Beglane leads dancers through their steps.

Co-captain Rory Beglane leads dancers through their steps.

The tile walls of the gym reverberate to a pounding techno rhythm, filling the warm, brightly lit room with sound.

Also bouncing, but also in a rhythmic way, are about a dozen young women—and one young man. All wear the black T-shirts of the university’s Irish Dance Team, an entirely student-run troupe founded in 2006.  The team develops all of its own music and choreography.

Yes, at a university steeped in the proud tradition of sports teams, this is a very different kind of team, but perhaps not so surprising for an institution also well known for its highly regarded Irish studies. And for a student of a particular background, the Irish Dance Team is a definite draw.

Senior Mattie Rowan is the co-captain of the team. She’s from Albany, N.Y., majoring in political science and Arab & Islamic Studies. LIke many out on the gym floor, she had a background in Irish dance before coming to Villanova, though she didn’t attend a traditional Irish dance school, as others did. “I’m from a small town,” she says. “We just had a dancer doing Irish dance in a studio in the town. I think that just shows the range of dancers we have. The primary aspect I was looking for when I was looking at colleges was religion, but also if there was a dance club. That was a definite plus for me.”

Other dancers, she says, decided on ‘Nova for the same reason. “A lot of people want to keep dancing, so they seek out dance groups. There are other schools that do offer it, but I think we’re very reachable. We have a Facebook page, a Twitter page, and we have our own Villanova page. We are known to people who are looking to keep dancing.”

One of those who considered the presence of an Irish dance team a plus was sophomore civil engineering major Rory Beglane, a lean, long-time dancer, a competitor at the world level, and the sole male. He became co-captain this year, an unexpected honor.

“I’ve been dancing for 14 years,” Rory explains. “For me, it was a deciding factor. I wasn’t willing to give up Irish dancing after years of practice.”

Members of the team have plenty of opportunities to put their practice to good use. There’s plenty of the traditional stuff, with ghillies and hard shoes—a gray plastic tarp is there primarily to shield the gym floor from the latter. But the tecktonik dance the team is practicing—with decidedly non-traditional moves—provides an accessible entree to Irish dance for students who aren’t familiar with it.

“We dance to it for basketball games, typically,” says Mattie. “We do it at halftime, and students are more likely to take an interest in it with the type of music we use. We still dance to traditional music in the beginning, but then we go into the contemporary.” Additionally, the team has performed for many other events, including the university’s day of service, the Special Olympics, and, two years ago, the Celtic Festival in Disneyland Paris.

This year, says Mattie, the team is going to add a challenging new twist. “We’re trying to do an intercollegiate competition. There isn’t one in North America that’s ever been done, so Villanova is starting it. It will be in late November. It’s just a way for people who have never competed to compete, and for those who are still competing, it’s good practice.”

The Villanova group tends to draw members from throughout the country—most with experience, but some without. Freshman Gabriella Berman is a good example. A dancer for 12 years, she’s from Joliet, Illinois. When it came to Irish dance, she says, “I was looking for it. I wouldn’t have made my choice on that completely, but I was really happy they had it.”

One dancer, freshman Brenna Fallows, is local. She’s from Moorestown, N.J., and she danced, off and on, with the Gibson School for nine years. Like many local dancers, she has performed in area competitions, and she was all too familiar with the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade. She, too, chose Villanova for its Irish dance team. “I knew about it when I was deciding between schools. For me it was a really nice bonus. It was the icing on the cake.”


A Director’s View of “Woman and Scarecrow”

woman and scarecrowA woman lies on her deathbed, time ticking away, the end imminent. As she comes face to face with her mortality, she nurses regrets, mourns missed opportunities and contemplates the nature of her complicated marriage to a unfaithful husband. She is accompanied on her final journey by a friend, unseen to others, who is both comforter and critic.

Like most quick summaries of a complex piece of art, this bit of shorthand doesn’t do justice to Irish playwright Marina Carr’s ultimately redemptive “Woman and Scarecrow,” on tap for Villanova University’s Vasey Theatre November 8 through 20. “Woman and Scarecrow” has been described by reviewers as “spirited,” “biting,” “poetic” and “fierce and funny.”

(Hey, it’s Irish. It’s about death. Of course there are laughs.)

The play is not the first visible evidence of a unique new educational exchange program between Villanova’s well-known Irish Studies department and the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland, but it might boast the highest profile. Described as “an historic intellectual/artistic partnership,” the new exchange program will expose Villanova students and outside audiences to renowned Irish actors, directors and writers; at the same time, Villanova students will travel to Dublin to study and work with the Abbey Theatre.

Directing “Woman and Scarecrow” is actor-friar Father David Cregan, O.S.A., associate professor and chair of the theatre department.

We talked to him about the play and the new relationship with the Abbey Theatre.

Question: Tell me about this play. What is it about to you and why do you like it?

Answer: “Woman and Scarecrow” has all the best qualities of an Irish play. It has a powerful story, it’s written with a kind of poetic prose that is indicative of the Irish dramatic tradition, and it also balances the comic and the tragic elements of the human existence in quite an epic way. That makes it a shining example of Irish theatre. The ability to both laugh and cry and to celebrate and mourn simultaneously—that’s part of the Irish aesthetic in general.

The play was attractive to me because of the epic way in which it deals with the really important questions of life and death. It allows the audience to enjoy a powerful story that simultaneously has a prophetic message about how to live life to its fullest, how to value oneself and how to live in the right relationship with the world. It tells the story through a series of tragedies and triumphs, through a series of failures and accomplishments in the life of Woman. But the play also has a sort of transnational quality in the way that it speaks to the human condition. It’s not only the Irish condition. It allows us to witness the last moments of this woman’s life as she tries to reconcile herself with her choices and deals with the repercussions of her mistakes.

Question: You’re an actor-director, but you’re also a priest. How do you look upon this play from the priest’s perspective?

Answer: It confirms something that both religion and theater share in common. If you’re familiar with the Roman Catholic creed, the line in the creed that really calls out to me is this one: “We believe in the seen and the unseen.” This play, while it tells a very specific story, has a kind of global outreach in the sense that it articulates both the seen and unseen qualities of what it means to be a human being, and it really connects the spiritual and the material in the way that it builds the relationship between Woman and the Scarecrow. The question in the play is, who or what is Scarecrow? Scarecrow appears on the stage for the entire production, and is physically and metaphysically connected with Woman, but she’s another element of her. The other characters in the play, when they come into the room, don’t see or acknowledge that Scarecrow is there. It’s kind of an embodiment of the spiritual component of the human condition. Scarecrow is not just her conscience, not editing or condemning her for a licentious lifestyle, but is pointing out to her that the mistake she made was in not valuing her life in the way that she should have; that her mistakes were that she didn’t treat herself well. [In this way, Scarecrow] helps woman cross from the world of the living into death. Those are the kinds of things they talk about the whole play. The play has an acknowledgement of the ethereal—or as I would describe it, of the spiritual—that definitely connects with my larger worldview of spiritual responsibility.

Question: Did Villanova’s theatre department choose this play, or was it a more collaborative decision with Abbey Theatre? And what role did the Irish Studies department play?

Answer: When the relationship with the Abbey Theatre began to materialize, we started to think of ways of making a connection. “Woman and Scarecrow” was a natural fit for me because my research and my writing is all in the area of contemporary Irish drama. I was interested in the potential and the power of the play. So many of the themes in the play are important Irish themes about returning home, and in particular returning to the West of Ireland and its curative and humane qualities. They speak of homecoming. Homecoming is not just about the connection to place or earth; it’s also a kind of spiritual reckoning.

Question: Marina Carr was a Heimbold professor at Villanova in 2003. Did that have anything to do with the choice of this play?

Answer: We’ve been connected with her work; we’ve produced it before. She was a friend of the department. This particular piece of work in my opinion is a triumph in her writing, a high point in her career, even though it’s a relatively small play.

Question: You’re an Irish fella. What’s appealing to you about doing Irish Theatre.

Answer: What I love about the Irish theatre is its courage, the exploration of deep emotion, and its interest in the journey of the soul and of the mind. This play contains all of that. It’s an actor’s dream come true because of the breadth of its emotional expression, and it’s a director’s dream come true because the script is so beautifully and poetically written. It really exhibits a kind of emotional complexity that is part of Irish artistic expression, a kind of courage to look at the harder, darker things. That’s one of the things I love about Irish plays—it’s the deep feeling at the center of it all.

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