A storyteller has departed.
So says Beatrice Campbell on the passing of Jennifer Phipps, esteemed Shaw Festival actress.
Campbell has known Phipps almost since birth. “Shortly after I was born, my father (Douglas Campbell) played the lead in The Entertainer. Jenny played his wife, and my mother (Moira Wylie) was awkwardly playing their daughter. She’s always been part of our world.”
The Shaw stage manager continues, “I remember visiting her in the late 70s or early 80s. She was so quirky, and her house was full of ‘objets’ that were fun to look at. Kids were always bestowed with things. Her house was covered in trinkets and she loved to share.”
Phipps’ generosity is mentioned by many, and was a keystone of her personal character, whether in the theatre or out of it.
“She was extremely truthful as an actor, and prided herself on being able to deliver some of the essentials of the play. She was extremely generous, on stage and off,” says Christopher Newton, former artistic director of the Shaw. “She knew what she was saying — not all actors do — and she always knew how her part fit into the production.”
Newton continues, “She worked almost to the end of her life, and that was a beautiful thing to see: beautiful, honest, good, real and caring, and with all that experience. She was a great craftsman as well as an artist.”
“I look around my house and remember her,” says long-time friend and fellow actor Nuala Fitzgerald. “She found out early on I like frogs, and now my house is absolutely festooned with them.” She also recalls an abundant correspondence. “Jenny wrote wonderful letters on whatever was handy — I would pull out little torn strips of paper and realize that was page three.”
“Dame Jenny,” as she was known, was also famous for her humour. “She was infinitely watchable, inventive, and very funny,” says Shaw alum Corinne Koslo. “She had impeccable timing, and was a gracious, kind, brilliant actress. She did things with text you had never seen done before.”
“She drank vodka and I drank whisky and we sat on the porch and smoked cheroots,” says Fitzgerald, evoking a wonderful image. “We laughed so much together. She was just a very special individual.”
“She had a laugh that could crack open the sky,” says Koslo, pausing as if listening to it now.
Friendship was another strong quality of Phipps’, which Campbell credits possibly to the fact she was sent to boarding school at age five, and would have had to learn to adapt and bond.
Her early life was theatrical unto itself, if somewhat tragic. Campbell recounts Phipps was born out of wedlock in London in 1932, “and was kind of tucked away. She was adopted at six weeks old by two sisters,” she says. “She called one of them Mummy — she was calling for her in her sleep at the end.”
Her birth mother and grandmother were always in her life, but she wasn’t allowed to identify them as such, says Campbell.
“She had a very strange life. She never knew who her father was — until she accidentally found out during an audition. She mentioned her mother and grandmother’s names, because they were also in the theatre, and the director said, ‘Oh, you’re Martin Walker’s child.’ She replied, ‘Oh, am I? I hadn’t known.’”
Perhaps as a result of these things, says Campbell, “there was always something of a little girl needing attention and love as a way of knowing she was real.”
Says Fitzgerald, “she had a great deal of courage. She had a lot of adversity in life — she worked through so many situations where a lot of us would just lay down and stop.”
The actress seems to have found ways to use that pain and adversity to her advantage on stage. “She was so gifted, so creative; she had a marvellously quixotic mind,” says Fitzgerald. “That’s why she was such a gifted actor: she never approached anything head-on; she always found a way to circle it and find her own way in.”
“Like everyone who was at the Shaw with her, Jenny was one of those actors you were always looking up to; she was so impressive,” says Koslo. “You could never see the work in progress. One day she would just show up with a perfectly three-dimensional character. She brought such heart to her roles — she made me care about her character.”
“Jenny was an actor the day she was born. There was not a day when she wasn’t acting,” says Campbell. “And she managed to know every spectrum of people in the business. Her accountant is desolate at the loss. The staff at Valu-mart would give me food for her. An usher gave me a small envelope of cash to help her. She was charming — she was able to make you feel better about yourself when she turned her twinkle your way.”
Phipps had health and financial issues in the last few years of her life. “The thing about actors is there’s no retirement age,” says Campbell.
“You don’t have a pension. You’re focused on different things. Old age most harshly takes people by surprise. The only way to survive in the arts is to have the blind faith that something good is just around the corner. Why else would they subject themselves to this life? It’s a bizarre profession.”
Campbell credits “Doctor Theatre” for boosting Phipps’ career near the end. “People can be unable to walk or speak off stage, and then they get on stage and you would never know there was anything wrong with them. Only in the last year did Jenny admit she was old.”
“Right to the very end she thought the next job was right around the corner,” says Barbara Worthy, one of Phipps’ long-time friends and part of the circle of caregivers.
There were some difficult times, fiscally and physically, toward the end of Phipps’ life, and her friends stood by her and helped her through it all. “It really has been a show of her character that she had as many people to care for her as she did,” says Campbell.
A team of seven friends on rotation cared for Phipps as she went through the process of selling her house and moving after a quarter century of residency, going through double hip surgery, and more. “There has been a team of people caring for Jenny for the past few years. A really lovely group,” says Campbell. “All of us have known Jenny for decades. A beautiful group of people who made things happen when they had to, especially for the last year as things deteriorated.”
“She had lots of friends, people who were around her purely for socializing,” Campbell continues. “I was a caregiver, a helper — a bossy boots. I went back from London on a day off, took her to a medical appointment, and when we got back, I started to do things around her place, cleaning up, doing dishes. She stopped me, and said, ‘Let’s just sit.’ We had a cup of tea, went though a book of clippings, watched the movie Juno, and had a normal ‘friend’ visit. I’m very grateful for that, because she went into the hospital shortly after that and I never saw her outside of the hospital after that.”
Last year, says Campbell, actor Patrick McManus had an idea to throw a celebration for Jenny that might raise some funds. “When she sold her house the fundraising became unnecessary, so he decided it would be more fun to have a party for her 87th birthday. He got the ball rolling, and it was decided to hold it at St. Mark’s church.”
Campbell continues, “then Sis Weld offered to have it at her house, which made Jenny happy because her house is very grand. Then Jenny went into the hospital, sadly, and we had to play a waiting game until we realized she wouldn’t be leaving the hospital.”
“She was moved to Douglas Memorial Palliative Care — lovely people. They offered a room for the party. Two days before, it became clear she wasn’t going to be able to attend the party. She had even chosen the dress — a fabulous sequinned number with a butterfly on the front of it,” Campbell says.
The birthday party went on as planned, with its guest of honour upstairs in her palliative care bed. “It actually turned out to be quite perfect,” says Campbell. “Everybody gathered in the room, Margaret Molokach made two of her famous cakes, Patty Jamieson brought food, Janice Thomson brought juice for the kids.”
“Then one to two people went up to Jenny’s room at a time, and got to have private, individual visits, and give her a hug and a kiss,” says Campbell.
“When the pastor came, it was like she was resurrected. He prayed over her and she lifted her arms over her head and sang Onward, Christian Soldiers,” she says, chuckling. Phipps died just days later.
“I feel her around so strongly, and feel we will feel her around here forever. She shall be missed. She was an impish, mischievous, very tactile human being. I miss her already,” says Fitzgerald sadly.
“She was an elder in the theatre community. But we get all the gifts from them — it’s like saplings,” says Koslo.
“The most important thing to remember is she was an extremely fine actor, a terrific actor. I’m happy to say I told her that many times,” says Newton.
“She had the best smile, just the most wonderful smile,” says Fitzgerald.