Many years ago, five-time Tony-winner and first lady of the American theatre, Julie Harris, came to Cape Cod. Like many visitors who wash up on these shores, she fell in love with the place and bought a house, which became her home for the remainder of her days. Unlike many other visitors, once she was settled in she didn’t go to the beach; she went to the theatre. And, to the amazement and delight of the vibrant Cape theatre community, she kept coming back, always sitting front row center, at productions good, bad and indifferent, and always staying afterward to meet the cast and congratulate them with her standard words of praise: “Wonderful, wonderful!”
Wellfleet actor and playwright Stephen Russell worked with Julie on several projects, most memorably in a 2000 production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Jeff Zinn for the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, with the luminous Kim Crocker and the great Irish actor Colin Hamell. Beauty Queen opened on Memorial Day weekend and, not surprisingly, sold out every performance. Reviews were ecstatic, with the Boston Globe comparing the experience to seeing the Who in a hundred-seat club.
Stephen Russell remembers: “What I recall most about that run was the time offstage. 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. 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, Julie would tell stories and throw out these devastating one-liners. Once we were talking about Sean Connery and she let us know that she’d ‘like to see what was under his kilt.’ One other evening she happened to say ‘Macbeth,’ and Kim and Colin and I all looked at each other with the same question in our minds: Which one of us is going to tell the first lady of the American theatre that she has to go outside and run around the building? No one did.
“The amazing thing about Julie was that she was sort of an anti-diva. She was quite aware of her reputation and the effect she had on people, but she really went out of her way to make everyone feel comfortable around her, and she delighted in being just one member of a company. I well remember the day she got to the theatre early with mop and bucket in hand because she had noticed that the bathrooms, which the theatre shared with a neighboring coffee shop, were sore in need of cleaning. She was quite practical and understood that the business of selling theatre has as much to do with clean bathrooms as it does with who’s onstage.”
Julie’s presence in Chatham touched every theatre company on Cape Cod—she lent her name for fundraising efforts and performed with organizations Cape-wide. But her connection to the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater was particularly strong, and, eventually, she agreed to join the board as honorary chair and lead a fundraising effort that would result in a new and larger theatre. She hoped that someone with deeper pockets might come forward to take advantage of the opportunity to have the theatre named for them, but she was eventually persuaded to have the stage named in her honor. On June 23, 2007, with a standing–room-only audience, Julie attended the opening ceremony of WHAT’s new state-of-the-art venue. She sat in the front row center seat that still bears her name. She was asked if, after the speeches, she would like to simply stand to accept the cheers that would undoubtedly follow. When the time came 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 like a royal christening a ship. The new WHAT space was well and truly launched.
Julie Harris’s passion, personality and love of theatre gave us all something to aspire to. On all of us, from actors to producers to technicians, she left an indelible mark, asking nothing in return, as was her style—except that we continue our craft so that the world could be a better place to live. She was a Somebody who made everyone who came in contact with her feel like a Somebody, too.
Jeffry George is executive director of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.