Julie Harris

harris_julie_BiffWith Love, to Julie Harris

Dan Lombardo, Artistic Director
Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Aug. 25, 2013

For all of us at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater the passing of Julie Harris is profoundly sad. As with the passing of others whose lives touched millions, we’ll remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. Last night during intermission at the theater, I was beckoned into the bridge that connects the WHAT offices to the Julie Harris Stage. We sometimes call it The Bridge of Sighs, for it recalls the famous bridge in Venice.

My thoughts went back to one of the most joyous nights in the history of this company – the night Julie Harris dedicated the Julie Harris Stage. On June 23, 2007, with a standing–room-only audience, I had the honor of escorting Ms. Harris into the theater. We sat her in the center of the front row. Having suffered a stroke in 2001, we asked if, after the speeches, she would simply stand to accept the cheers that would undoubtedly follow. When the time came, WHAT staff members brought two dozen red roses to her seat. She stood – then leapt onto the stage. Her face beaming, she kissed the palm of her hand, knelt down and slapped the deck of the Julie Harris Stage. A stage was born.

Julie Harris, sometimes called “the first lady of American theater,” had been one of WHAT’s most avid supporters. In her words:

I’ve been going to WHAT since I first moved to Chatham. My first production was American Buffalo [1985], a thrilling experience, and I have had many, many more every season at WHAT. Great theater has the power to transform the way we see, the way we feel, and WHAT performs wonderfully stimulating, challenging theater.

In 1991, Julie performed for WHAT for the first time, opposite George Grizzard, in a one-night performance of Love Letters.

In 2000, Julie agreed to be the Honorary Chair of a new WHAT board of directors. She agreed, to our astonishment, to also star in our production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. This was the first production Carol Green, WHAT Board President, (2000 – 2010) saw, as she recalls in this statement:

All of us at WHAT will remember Julie Harris for her constant presence and encouragement of the work of our theater. In 2000, she graced our stage, appearing in Martin McDonaugh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, with Stephen Russell, and directed by Jeff Zinn. Extra performances were graciously added to accommodate the long lines waiting for the chance to see this extraordinary show.
Since the opening of our new theater in 2007, and until her recent decline, Julie attended every production at this beautiful new venue, named in her honor. She always sat in the center of the first row, and after the curtain, asked the actors to remain to talk to her. It was a time each will remember and always treasure.

We at WHAT will always honor Julie Harris’ memory.

Both Julie Harris and Carol Green were here in hardhats to break ground for the Julie Harris Stage on August 20, 2006. In the spring of 2007, Julie put her hardhat on again for a tour of the nearly completed Julie Harris Stage. As a souvenir she picked up a short length of cable, and waving it over the stage saying “A magic wand,” and taking it with her. Inspired by this I asked if she might have a bit of theater memorabilia she would like to contribute to the time capsule we would bury in front of the theater.

A week later she called me to her home to pick up two items: The wood and silver cross and beads she wore in the role of Joan of Arc in The Lark on Broadway in 1955-6, for which she won a Tony, and a leather bound volume of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part II, in which she performed in Britain in the 1940s.

Julie Harris’ most famous role was, arguably, her Tony-winning portrayal of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst on Broadway in 1976. My memories of Julie go back to the 1980s, when I was curator of the Emily Dickinson collection in Amherst. Julie and I appeared in the same documentary on the poet, and I will always think of these two legendary American women as sisters.

Emily Dickinson’s words about the death of her mother seem somehow appropriate for Julie Harris, the spiritual mother of WHAT, as well:

The dear Mother that could not walk, has flown. It never occurred to us that she had not Limbs, she had Wings—-and she soared from us unexpectedly as a summoned Bird—-

It was fitting that the news of Julie’s passing came to WHAT during a sold out performance on the Julie Harris Stage, one that ended with everyone in the theater on their feet cheering.

We’ll dim the lights in your honor, Julie, then burn brightly in celebration of your life and art!

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Remembering the Wonderful, Wonderful Julie Harris

Stephen Russell, WHAT for Kids Impresario
Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Aug. 26, 2013

I first got to know Julie Harris in my years working as the Artistic Director at the Academy Playhouse in Orleans. She was a frequent audience member and was always so gracious about staying afterwards and talking to the cast. I’ve read that John Gielgud had a standard phrase he would use when he went around to see someone after a performance – “Dear boy, words cannot express ….” which is ambiguous enough to spare the tender egos of the guilty and make others feel they’d really done something extraordinary. For Julie, it was “Wonderful, wonderful!” I have a hard time believing that she really thought all those performances were truly wonderful but a much easier time believing that she knew full well what an act of bravery it is to stand up in front of a crowd and pretend to be someone else for night after night, in good shows and bad, to great audiences and indifferent boredom and still keep coming back. My belief is based on the knowledge that she never lost or doubted the sense of wonder that theatre can convey. Imagine spending your life, six days a week, working at a ball bearing factory and then spending your one day off, as well as your vacations, and your rare down time visiting other ball bearing factories. That was the theatre for Julie. She’d be home for a week between engagements and spend every night at a different local theatre, always in the front row, often, in later years, nodding off, but gamely staying through to the end and always waiting in the lobby to greet friends and total strangers who would come and, sometimes literally, kneel at her feet. “Wonderful, wonderful!” And no review, no praise ever felt like greater validation.

The first time I had the opportunity to actually work with Julie was in the Spring of 1994. A hole had suddenly opened up in the Academy’s Spring Schedule and I got the idea that it might be interesting to do a three week production of Spoon River Anthology, which is a show that works well in desperate situations because it requires no set and is usually done with a cast of only four. Except, for some reason, I decided that it would be more fun to do it with double that number of actors and a rotating cast to boot, so instead of having to find only four actors, I would have to recruit 24 actors to work on this thing. And, just to make things really interesting, I decided that the first night should include not only all 24 actors, but also that Julie Harris should be asked if she would consider taking the lion’s share of the lines that night. To my surprise and delight, she said yes, and I think all of us who were privileged to share the stage with her or be in the audience that night will agree that it was one very special evening.

Flash forward four years. Nina Schuessler has agreed to do a play of mine based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Wild Swans. In writing the narration that links all the scenes together, I keep hearing this voice and, at some point I realize that the voice is Julie’s. Many years before this, Julie had recorded an audio book of Stuart Little and it was one of those tapes my sons, then 7 and 9, had listened to over and over growing up, so I was very familiar with the sound of her voice and her marvelous ability to draw you into a story.
Of course it was out of the question to have Julie in the theatre to narrate every performance but what if the narration could be recorded? Again, she said yes and we spent a delightful morning working together at Brian Morris’ studio in Chatham. I so vividly remember the moment when I asked her to do a second take on one of the lines, because, as I rather indelicately put it, “I think there was a bit of mouth noise on that last take.” There was somewhat of a pause. Had I offended her? Would she storm out of the session and vow to have nothing to do with me, the show or Cape theatre ever again? Finally she replied, “Oh, dear, well, then, we must do it again! Thanks for letting me know.”
As it turned out, Julie did agree to take a roll in the benefit second night performance of The Wild Swans and it was one of the most thrilling nights of my life. Not only did I get to hear her brilliant narration, but, having cast myself as well as Robin and Pete in the show, I got to, once again, share a stage with her and, for the first time, both of my sons. In fact this was Pete’s first show and I doubt there are many other actors who can say they began their career at age seven, sharing a stage with a five time Tony award winner.

Kim Crocker was also in The Wild Swans and, during the run, she gave me a copy of a play to read, saying it was something Julie really wanted to do and that she wanted Kim to be in it, too. “And there’s a great role for you in here, too,” she added.
Frankly, I didn’t think much of the play and told Kim as much. It was my first exposure to the writing of Martin McDonagh and I utterly failed to see the humor in this dark Irish play, which seemed to me just dark, depressing and violent, not usually the kind of material to which I’m drawn. I confess, I just didn’t get it. But, when I heard that WHAT was going to lead off the 2000 season with this show, with both Julie and Kim in the cast, there was no question about whether or not I was going to audition for it. To my great good fortune, I got the part and got to spend not just a night or two or a morning but an entire three weeks rehearsing and another five weeks performing with one of the greatest actors of our time. And I came to realize that Julie and Kim had been right all along – it was and is a great piece of theatre – dark, depressing and violent, yes, but also very, very funny and engaging.

Rehearsals for The Beauty Queen of Leenane began on May 2. In those days, WHAT had only an unheated former garage for rehearsal space and it was not yet warm enough to begin working in the also unheated theatre, so we spent our first week working at the Academy, on the set of On Golden Pond. Jeff Zinn was directing and throughout this process he was at the top of his game. Herewith are some notes I made in my journal about those early days of rehearsal:

First rehearsal: “ We met at 10 in the backroom of the Academy. …….. It was cold and rainy this morning, though the sky had cleared and the temperature moderated by the time we got out at 3. Jeff was already setting up in the back room when I arrived at quarter of. Julie came in next and introduced me to her friend Eve Pierce, who stayed for the reading. (They were followed by) Ted Vitale, the stage manager, Kim and Mary Jo (Horner, the costume designer), along with my little brother, Ray, who is the real article, from just outside Dublin and is called Colin Hamell in real life. Everyone is introduced and we arrange ourselves around the table. We are eventually joined by (set designer) Dan Joy. …. It is immediately obvious that JH is off book and the work that she and Kim have been doing together gets us off to a flying start. Colin is very good, too, very sharp, very funny – with excellent timing. … Julie does the most extraordinary things with the moment when Mag (her character) gives away that she’s read the letter. The emotions are conveyed so subtly – a catch of the breath, a facial twitch, a varying of breathing – yet they are as clear as any intent could be. She underplays the burning scene – how many actresses would resist the chance to scream their heads off and let us feel their pain? – but I think we all know how horrific this will be.”

What I did not note from that first read-through was the moment when Colin corrected Julie, who had clearly done quite a bit of dialect work prior to that first rehearsal, on her pronunciation of the name of the town, Oughterard. Just as in the recording session, there was a pause, before Julie replied, “Oh, thank you, Colin! It’s so wonderful to have you working with us. Now, you must let me know if I’m getting anything else wrong, won’t you?”

Note from another rehearsal several days later:
“When Julie came in we set to work on Scene 4. She was very funny and very nasty. She’s altering her face, seemingly by sheer will alone, to make herself less attractive. It’s extraordinary because you never see her do it, you just leave her alone for a second and the next time you look at her she’s got the Mag face on.”

Beauty Queen opened May 24, Memorial Day weekend and, not surprisingly, we sold out every performance. Reviews were ecstatic, with the Globe comparing the experience to seeing The Who in a hundred seat club. Jeff’s direction was tight and inspired, Christopher Ostrom’s lights were stunning and Dan’s set was – well, it was a Dan Joy set which meant it was a work of art in itself, designed and executed to perfection.

I was often asked that summer what it was like being on stage with Julie and I came up with the answer that it was like playing tennis with a very generous Bjorn Borg, or someone of his stature. And you realize, at some point, that he’s playing, not to win, but just for the sheer love of the game and that he’s as interested in making you look good as he is himself. And because of that, you can’t help but bring your own best game, too.
The Globe review called us a cast of equals and I’ll remember that phrase ‘til the day I drop. It was Julie who made us that, by her affection, by her generosity, by her love of the game.

But what I remember most about that run was the time off-stage. The four of us shared a dressing room that was about the size of a generous walk-in closet. We discovered that we also shared a similar sense of humor and approach to performing – take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Colin has this very Irish way of taking the piss out of someone so that, even when you’re the target, it never seems malicious or anything less than hilarious. So from the time we got to the theatre to the time we walked on stage, all we seemed to do was laugh. And then we’d laugh all the way through intermission, too. In between jokes and Colin telling the rest of us how shite we all were, Julie would tell stories and throw out these devastating one-liners, like the time we were talking about Sean Connery and she let us know that she’d “like to see what was under his kilt.” She also told us that she had once been picked up by a cab driver from the bus stop in Hyannis and, as they were driving to her home in West Chatham, the driver kept glancing in the rearview mirror. Finally, he mustered up the courage to ask her, “Were you on Bonanza?” And she replied, “Why, yes, I did do a guest starring role on Bonanza but that was a long, long time ago. Good for you for remembering!” To which the driver replied, “Huh?” or words to that effect. She finally got it out of him that he just wanted to know if she had come in on the Plymouth Brockton bus or Bonanza.

Julie on reading her reviews, something many performers choose not to do: “Of course I read reviews! How else am I going to know what I’ll be doing next week?”

We also got occasional reminders of just who we were working with. A casual reference to James Dean, brought forth the remark, “He was such a sweet boy. You know he was an excellent flute player.” We would often find other stars and celebrities waiting outside the dressing room door. It was endlessly fascinating to think about who we were now one degree of separation away from. I still marvel at the fact that I was in a play with someone who starred in a play with Boris Karloff.

One other memory. A year or so later, I went to see Julie in Boston, when she was, once again, touring in The Belle of Amherst. Again, the transformation from the person I had gotten to know into Emily Dickinson was astonishing. She walked out on stage and shed thirty years. I went backstage to see her afterwards and was standing at the rear of a long line of hopeful well wishers when she emerged from her dressing room. She scanned the crowd and, seeing me, cried out, “Stephen!”
“Hi, Julie,” I called back and all heads swiveled in my direction. But that’s what she did, you see. She was a Somebody who made everyone who came in contact with her feel like a Somebody, too. And she was wonderful, wonderful.

 

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