Obituary - Jenny Harris 1944-2012

30th November 2012 at 00:00

Jenny Harris was passionate, opinionated and often infuriating. But to meet her was to be inspired by her, colleagues said: in her 17 years as director of education at the National Theatre, she transformed the way people viewed arts education.

Jennifer Carole Metz was born in South London in February 1944. A dutiful daughter, she worked hard and was academically successful. While studying sociology at the London School of Economics, she married her childhood boyfriend, Laurence Harris: the acceptable way for dutiful daughters to escape the parental home.

After graduation, Jenny and Laurence enrolled on postgraduate courses at the University of California, Berkeley. This was 1968 and Jenny was inspired by the way the hippie movement used performing arts to effect social and political change.

She returned to Britain and set up The Combination, a community theatre in Brighton. It was here, in 1970, that she met her second husband, John Turner. He was an auditioning performer; she was "a hippie angel", standing in brocade kaftan under tinkling Tibetan bells.

Though never a performer herself, she was a compelling person to work with. An opinionated judge of character, she was unfailingly supportive of those she liked. "She gave you wings to help you fly," people said, repeatedly. But she could also be infuriating. Her mind moved so quickly that she would regularly hang up the phone in the middle of a conversation.

In 1972, The Combination moved to the Albany theatre in South London. Here, Ms Harris worked with local schools and outreach groups. Then, in 1991, she was appointed director of education and training at London's National Theatre. Theatre education had previously been nothing but a bolt-on to existing performances. Ms Harris changed all that.

She launched Connections, a project linking school-age playwrights with professionals including Meera Syal, Mark Ravenhill and David Mamet. And she set up Primary Shakespeare, taking vibrant productions into primaries around the country. She also sent professional storytellers into schools and encouraged pupils to become storytellers themselves.

She was a keen talent spotter, whether looking for a professional playwright or a teenage actor. She was generous with time and attention, and gave others permission to try the unlikely and the unconventional. While often impatient with the bureaucracy of the National Theatre, she refused to accept that there was any obstacle that could not be overcome with enough creativity. When the theatre would not put on a production of Oh, What a Lovely War!, she staged it in a tent.

Her creativity found outlets outside work, too. During the 1980s, she and a friend set up a travel agency, running safari tours to apartheid South Africa. In a false bottom, underneath the tourists' feet, she smuggled arms to freedom fighters. And, in recent years, she established a friendship group to address the challenges of advancing age.

Jenny Harris died of oesophageal cancer on 6 November.

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