When I was in grade eleven my best friend at the time, who was a year older than me, had the opportunity to play a background role in Neptune Theatre’s holiday production of Scrooge. Based on the Dickens novel A Christmas Carol, the show boasted of an exceptionally talented and well chosen local cast including Nigel Bennett, who gave a formidable performance in the title role, Jeremy Webb, who was heartbreaking and endearing as Bob Cratchit and whose onstage chemistry with Bennett was nearly unrivalled on the Fountain Hall stage, Deb Allen and David McClelland brought joyful life to the Fezziwigs, Lee J. Campbell made a haunting Jacob Marley and Marla McLean was sweetness incarnate as Belle/Belinda. Yet, as much as I was envious of my friend for having the opportunity to work with so many who I considered to be giant Halifax theatre stars, she was most excited about this venture because it was directed by Jean Morpurgo.
I don’t know how our paths continually evaded one another, but sadly I am among a small minority in the Nova Scotia theatre community who never actually met Jean face to face, but nevertheless, from that moment at sixteen years old, I knew that she had a widespread reputation for magic. Scrooge, which I saw in December 2000, was not widely innovative or avant-garde in its direction, it was the vivid reflection of its role as the holiday show at a regional theatre notorious at that time for its aversion to taking risks, but nevertheless, it was a beautiful production. The story that Morpurgo brought to the stage utilized the various talents of her vibrant cast generously, and burst with a joyful, jubilant heart that reached out and touched the audience in just that winsome, wistful way that you want Dickens to resonate with you at Christmastime.
Jean’s productions were never hollow; they were never about the facade, with glitz and finesse lacquered on, her actors were always deeply rooted in their characters, making strong, clear, urgent choices and I always left a Morpurgo play with the sense that every single person in the cast had given their very best performance. I am certain that it was Jean who drew the best out of her actors, who created the environment that was conducive to making living, breathing theatre that will be remembered fondly for years, and maybe even decades, to come. Scrooge was not the first play that Morpurgo had a hand in bringing to life that I saw as a teenager, she Assistant Directed Major Barbara (1997), an Allen MacInnis production which I attended with my Grade 8 class, which also had a stellar cast including Nicola Lipman, Lorretta Bailey, Mary-Colin Chisholm and Jordan Pettle. At the time I remember feeling a little overwhelmed by Shaw, as well as it being hard to concentrate on the story and the language at a rowdy student matinee, but in hindsight my remembrances of the play strike me as being quite consistent with a Shaw Festival production, and indeed Jean would make her way to Niagara-on-the-Lake as part of the Director’s Project, where she directed Overlaid by Robertson Davies and Assistant Directed She Loves Me, Lord of the Flies and Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Indeed, Jean Morpurgo directed plays at The National Arts Center, The Manitoba Theatre Centre, she Assistant Directed new Canadian plays under Richard Rose at Necessary Angel Theatre in 1998, directed Timothy Findley’s Can You See Me Now for Equity Showcase Theatre in Toronto in 1997 and directed and taught at Grenfell College in Newfoundland, but she always came home to Nova Scotia where she helped to shape the community in a quiet, humble, but vitally integral way.
Jean co-founded Halifax’s Shakespeare by the Sea with Patrick Christopher Carter and Elizabeth Murphy in 1994, which has remained a critically important summer theatre institution in Halifax that has provided a crucial stepping stone between University Theatre and professional careers for countless Haligonian theatre artists, as well as producing some truly exceptional productions (their 2008 production of Othello springs immediately to mind). She spent ten seasons working at Festival Antigonish (in Antigonish, Nova Scotia) bringing summer audiences there comedies, dramas and even the occasional musical. She directed a poignant revue there called Joni Mitchell: River (2005), comprised of the music of Joni Mitchell and starring Raquel Duffy, Mark Uhre and Margot Simpson, that I remember being especially impressed by. Again, Jean could cut directly to the heart of the matter, bringing out the nuanced relationships and rich stories within Mitchell’s poetic lyrics in a manner that seemed so simple, and never contrived. Other notable productions that she directed for Festival Antigonish include Humble Boy, World Without Shadows, Educating Rita, Skylight, Molly’s Veil and several plays by Norm Foster. She also acted in several plays there including Humble Boy (Mercy), Gulls (Molly) and Go Back for Murder (Mrs. Rogers). Jean also kept returning to direct at Neptune Theatre (The Memory of Water, Beauty and the Beast (play), Problem Child) and performed there in And Then There Were None and Dancing at Lughnasa.
Most importantly, Jean was a pillar in the Halifax theatre community, a theatre community that has been sometimes ostracized from its own theatre institutions and frequently battles the influx of actors from elsewhere, Jean was someone with rich experience, meticulous instincts, overwhelming generosity and a powerful, positive spirit that was able to ensure that Halifax’s own emerging actors were given the opportunity to learn, to work and to shine in high calibre productions without leaving home. She worked as a dramaturge with Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre and directed the first productions of Therac 25 by Adam Pettle and Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad by Michael Melski, as well as acting as dramaturge for Anthony Black’s plays Soul Alone, Homage and When It Rains. As he told Elissa Bernard of The Chronicle Herald, “She was intelligent and just extremely supportive. She gave me confidence in the ideas I was pursuing and encouraged me to keep going. She was so warm. I don’t know. Everybody loved Jean. She had such a good heart.” Jean was continually passionate and dedicated to helping foster and develop new work in a province where that can seem like a constant, uphill battle. She was honoured at last year’s Robert Merritt Awards with the Legacy Award and this year, posthumously, received a standing ovation and was memorialized beautifully by her friend and colleague Genevieve Steele, upon her Merritt Award win for Outstanding Direction for Maggie’s Getting Married last summer at Festival Antigonish.
Jean Elizabeth Morpurgo passed away after a valiant battle with cancer on December 3rd, 2010 and her loss is felt profoundly by those who knew and loved her, and by the theatre community that blossomed under her generous care. As I look at the bright eyes and infectious smile that is shinning up at me from her headshot in an old programme, I am reminded of the community spirit that Jean exemplified, with subtle grace, and that we must be good to one another, to join together and to be helpful and encouraging instead of allowing competition, envy or self-doubt to pit us against each other. Jean proved, doubtlessly, that working together and inspiring one another is what makes world-class art and I know that we will go forth, bravely and steadfastly, holding hands, in her honour and in gratitude.
Thank you, Jean. Your light shines on.