Community arts pioneer, creative producer and director, Jenny Harris died of stomach cancer on 6 November, aged 68, at least twenty years too early for all of us, as her brother David said.

Photo of Jenny Harris

Many of us in theatre and community arts were touched personally by Jenny’s charismatic and empowering passion for the work. Her professional story reads like a history of community activism through culture and the arts in the UK and beyond. From her early days in Brighton, setting up The Combination with Noel Greig and Ruth Marks, to her years (1990–2007) as Director of the National Theatre’s education department, to recent projects such as ‘The Emancipation of the dispossessed’, site-specific theatre productions made with her lifelong partner, John Turner, she was at the forefront of every radical arts movement.
At the centre of this work was the Albany. In 1972, when The Combination was invited to take up residency at the old Albany Empire, she took all she had learned from Brighton and turned it into a beacon of everything a community arts centre could and should be. Combining health schemes with young women’s arts projects, circus, community plays and bands like the Flying Pickets and the Squeeze, the Albany engaged and served its local community while bringing in young audiences from the radical political movements. Fifteen of the ground-shifting ‘Rock against Racism’ concerts were held there. Circus Senso, the result of Jenny’s sabbatical in Australia, brought all the creativity, thrill and inventiveness of non-animal circus to the UK, many of these performers going on to be part of the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil.

The wonderfully iconic posters on Jenny’s own website (jennyharris.org) pay tribute to the many young theatre companies, writers, producers and performers who learnt their ropes at the Albany. The list of people whose creative lives were formed by being part of this reads like a who’s who of alternative and community theatre, circus, music and dance. For the ten years she was running the Albany Empire she was also working untiringly to move it from its well-loved but deteriorating Victorian building to the new purpose-built arts centre on Douglas Way. Photos of Diana, Princess of Wales, opening the building in 1982 show Jenny’s infectious warmth and her capacity for making anyone and everyone feel welcomed − even a heavily pregnant princess.

But Jenny was never one to stand still and enjoy success. Having moved the Albany into its new building, she left in 1986 to work on new projects, including hatching the idea for the Greenwich Picture House. Then in 1991 Jenny was invited by Richard Eyre to take up a new challenge.

Her seventeen years at the National Theatre changed forever the concept of what an education and learning department might be. Among the inspiring and ground-breaking programmes she initiated here was National Connections, commissioning new plays to be performed by over 300 UK youth theatres finishing on the Olivier stage. There was also the Shakespeare for Schools project, which took magical productions to inner city primary schools, and the Word Alive storytelling programme, re-imagining the literacy curriculum. At the same time the City Ambassadors programme challenged notions of how young refugees and asylum seekers could contribute to life in London, while Theatreworks took creativity, arts and culture into business, the public sector and voluntary organisations.

Jenny also made sure the work went out of the institution, touring Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ in a tent in 1995 before tents were de rigueur, reaching audiences which would never have ventured across the National Theatre threshold. ‘Seeding a Network’ in 1991, conceived with her friend and colleague, Jean Horstman, created partnerships between producers and artists from the UK and Central and Eastern Europe that continue vibrantly to this day.

When cuts in funding left the Albany struggling to survive, she took the whole idea of cultural regeneration and turned it on its head. Rather than creating new spaces for the ‘cappuccino classes’, her ‘Art of Regeneration’ from 2001 to 2005 focused on developing and encouraging the creative potential of young local people, recognising, as she had in her early work with the Pepys Estate, that grassroots participation in arts and cultural activities can contribute to profound social change. Funded partly by the Department of Transport and the Regions (another of Jenny’s wonderful ways of being ahead of the curve!), she set up a partnership between the National Theatre, Lewisham and Greenwich, Goldsmiths and the Albany that has created a paradigm for how national institutions can engage with their own backyard.

Jenny loved her work at the National Theatre, and the possibilities it offered, even if she did not always find the ways of institutions easy to deal with. Influenced by her time on the Berkeley campus in 1968, she was driven by a passion for social justice and was never afraid of wrong-footing those who just did not, in her words, “get it”. If the personal really is the political, Jenny lived this out in every aspect of her life, from her own ‘practical’ version of feminism, to her sexual politics, her commitment to new writing, new art forms and young performers. She encouraged young women in particular to become writers, producers and set up their own theatre companies. She produced their work and championed their right to be making it. Jenny had an unerring eye for spotting people’s potential, letting them know they possessed it and then supporting them while they put on their wings and flew.

What a history of her achievements does not totally reveal is the inspirational, courageous and ‘bloody brilliant’ woman that was Jenny Harris. For those who did not know her the tributes on the website will give some sense of the way she affected the lives of all those whose paths she crossed, the many theatre companies she was on the board of and the projects she was still working on, such as the history of the Albany and The Combination. Her legacy, like her generosity of spirit, endures.

Jenny is survived by her husband, John Turner, her brother David, nephew Ben and the extended family of women and men that she called her own.

By Chrissie Tiller

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Photo of Chrissie Tiller