Stage Door News

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Shaw Festival mourns veteran actor Jennifer Phipps

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Flags at the Shaw Festival will be at half mast all weekend as the company pays tribute to veteran actress Jennifer Phipps, who died Wednesday night.

The London-born performer joined the company in 1967 and appeared in more than 50 productions over 30 seasons. Her final performance was under heavy make-up as the Cheshire Cat in the 2016 production of “Alice in Wonderland.”

With her feisty delivery and sharp sense of humour, Phipps was an audience favourite in Shaw productions like “Misalliance,” “Major Barbara” and “Hedda Gabler,” while winning a Dora Maver Award in 1983 for “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

On its Facebook page, the company said it was saddened by the loss of an “esteemed actress, longtime ensemble member and cherished friend.”

“We will treasure our memories of her time at the Shaw Festival and her magnificent storytelling on and off stage.”

Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll took over after Phipps’ final show, but said her “impact on the Shaw Festival is undeniable.

“Stories of her spirit and her grand adventures are notorious. More than a talented actress, Jenny was also a dear friend of so many at The Shaw. It’s clear that she made an unforgettable impression on anyone who had the pleasure of meeting her or seeing her perform.”

Former Shaw actor Neil Barclay acted opposite Phipps in his first show, 1990’s  “Misalliance,” and recalls her calming influence during rehearsals.

“The love and confidence she instilled in me during that terrifying few days was more than enough to make us friends for life,” he said. “I expect everyone will say this, but she was unrivalled for her natural, unforced elegance onstage.

“She was always the realest person in the room and she positively beamed and glowed the second she set foot onstage.”

That charm extended off-stage as well, he added. Right up to her final days.

“To watch her charm doctors, nurses and fellow patients was a beautiful thing.”

In addition to theatre, Phipps did dozens of movies and TV shows, including “The Fifth Season” in 1955 and “Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning” in 2008. Her final film appearance will be in the upcoming “Astronaut,” starring Richard Dreyfuss.

Former Shaw actor Peter Krantz appeared alongside her in Shaw productions of “This Happy Breed,” “Trelawny of the Wells,” “Man and Superman” and more. He said her “brilliant stage presence” forced other performers to stay sharp.

“If you weren’t on your game, the audience would automatically switch their focus to something more interesting, usually her,” he said.

But beyond the stage, he said she was most proud of her two children, Daliah and Paul, her three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild she met before passing away Wednesday.

Despite not communicating during her final days, Krantz says a “sizable contingent” of theatre people still showed up at a recent gathering for her 87th birthday. And to say goodbye.

“In some ways she was the mother of the Shaw,” he said. “A Shaw that no longer exists.”

By John Law for

Photo: Jennifer Phipps. © 2018 David Cooper.