20 April 2014

A lifetime walking the boards

12/10/2011 10:47:00 a.m.

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Kate Harcourt, 84 and still acting up.

Kate Harcourt, 84 and still acting up.

SHE’S New Zealand’s oldest working actor who recently won her first award for acting. It’s a good one.
Dame Kate Harcourt, one of New Zealand’s most accomplished and respected leading actresses, was awarded first prize in the Best Female Actress category at the 2011 Rhode Island International Film Festival.

The 84 year old won for her depiction of Grace, a spritely rest home resident, in the short Kiwi film Pacific Dreams, written and directed by fellow Wellingtonian David Strong. She’s chuffed at having beat out Kiera Knightly and Anna Paquin for the award and is looking forward to when Pacific Dream screens in Wellington at the Paramount in November.
Harcourt was a late comer to acting. She first trained as a kindergarten teacher in Christchurch in 1946 but a back injury ended her short teaching career. Always keen on music and singing she went to Australia, graduating with a diploma in singing from the Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music in 1951, after which she trained further in London.
“But I was always too nervous to perform in front of an audience,” she says.
She only overcame her stage nerves on her return to Wellington, when she joined Wellington repertory and met her late husband Peter.
“After I met Peter I got more confidence and was able to perform in public.”
Peter introduced her to the head of school broadcasting and with her background in teaching and music she was soon offered her own radio show, Listen With Mother, a programme for pre-schoolers, which aired every weekday morning on National Radio.
For seven years in the 1970’s she was Kirkcaldie and Stains’ fashion co-ordinator, responsible for planning and compering the store’s daily fashion shows and occasionally demonstrating cooking equipment.
It was at this time that Harcourt first became involved in professional theatre, not as an actor but as a theatre publicist for Downstage. She remembers marching all over town sticking up posters.
“When I was doing publicity every now and then I’d get the chance to get on stage. The parts gradually got bigger and then came roles in film, radio and television.”
Harcourt says her favourite medium is “whatever I’m doing at the time” but says the stage acting allows you to develop your character over time and improve your performance each day.  Her favourite stage role was the overbearing Victorian matriarch Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She also lists Renee’s Wednesday to Come as a highlight (she played the mother in the original version in 1984 and the grandmother when it returned to Downstage  21 years later) and working with her actress daughter Miranda in Flowers From My Mother’s Garden, first performed in the Wellington International festival of the Arts in 1998.
“It’s wonderful to be able to work with your daughter,” she says. “It’s such a privilege. I’m so proud of my children.”
And she says it’s her children, daughter Miranda and son Gordon, and her six grandchildren, that now gives her most pleasure in life. That, and acting.
“Acting is my life and I so enjoy the work. I’ve found the more you do the more you can do and as I get older I’ve found it easier to learn lines. I guess it’s a gift and I’m very pleased about it.”
Harcourt is appearing again at Downstage this week in Sex Drive, a comedy by Lorae Parry and Pinky Agnew, about three women who win Lotto. She joins Geraldine Brophy, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and Emma Kinane, the three lucky winners, and Nikki MacDonnell and Tim Spite.
“They’re all such fine actors. Mine is only a small part and I’ve really enjoyed sitting on the sideline watching.”
And Harcourt’s acting calendar is looking full for the next few months. A film of Flowers from My Mother’s Garden is planned.
“I think it will be my final contribution. Then again, you never know.”
Sex Drive, Circa Theatre, October 15 to November 12.
- Niels Reinsborg
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