Although she was 85 and in fragile health, veteran actor Jenny Phipps was the director’s first choice to play the iconic Cheshire Cat in the prestigious Shaw Festival’s 2016 production of Alice, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
“The cat had to be able to express so many things with its smile,” director Peter Hinton said. “Jenny could be soft and warm and enticing or she could be wicked. She could use that smile of hers to express such a wide range of irony, wit and feeling that she was perfect for the role.”
In order to reduce the physical demands on Ms. Phipps, Mr. Hinton used videotape plus computer imaging to make the cat appear onstage seemingly from nowhere. Initially, the transformation of Ms. Phipps into a feline required three hours of makeup. During its application the actor, known for immersion in every role she undertook, began to purr. A bemused hair and makeup artist Sharon Ryman said, “I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her licking her hands like paws.”
Alice was Ms. Phipps’s final production at the Shaw. She died on April 18 at the Douglas Memorial Hospital in Fort Erie, Ont., from a rare blood disorder. She was 87. Flags in front of the Shaw’s main stage flew at half-mast over Easter weekend in honour of her lifelong contribution to Canadian theatre.
Ms. Phipps joined the Shaw Festival in 1967, when Niagara-on-the-Lake was a rustic rural town with two small theatre venues. She went on to perform in more than 50 productions over 30 seasons at the Shaw, as well as acting at the Stratford Festival, Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, and with a variety of companies in Toronto and across the country. No matter how minor the role, Ms. Phipps possessed a theatrical magic that drew audiences to her.
"There were people that came to the theatre specifically to see her,” said Christopher Newton, who served as artistic director of the Shaw Festival from 1980 to 2002. ”She was the finest Mrs. Higgins in Pygmalion that I’ve ever seen. She had wonderful timing. She was very special.” He noted that Ms. Phipps inhabited her character so completely that she could improvise her way out of gaps if she forgot her lines.
”It’s quite a well-known story that she once skipped two pages in Major Barbara, leaving Ted Dykstra in a scene he shouldn’t have been in and wondering how to get off the stage,” Mr. Newton said.
Ms. Phipps also appeared in several movies and television shows including CBC’s Anne of Green Gables. Her final film performance will be in Astronaut, an upcoming feature starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Jennifer Margaret Phipps was born in London, England, on April 16, 1932, to a well-off family with deep theatrical roots. Her lineage included Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind and Nancy Price, her maternal grandmother who was a successful actor, author and theatre director. Ms. Price, mortified when her 16-year-old unmarried daughter gave birth, placed baby Jenny in the care of two female friends. One of the women was a stage manager with the surname Phipps.
At age five, Jenny was whisked away to a girls’ boarding school where she remained for the rest of her general education. At 17, she was accepted into London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), where she chummed around with actor Joan Collins. Post-RADA, Ms. Phipps might’ve followed her pal into film and television but she, like her own mother, had to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. The baby’s father sent her to the United States where he knew a couple looking to adopt. The couple named the baby Wendyl. Ms. Phipps reconnected with Wendyl later in life, after she’d had two more children, Daliah and Paul, with her husband, Peter Boretski. He was a Canadian actor/producer/director she met in London. She referred to him as her “soul mate.” They married in the late 1950s.
According to Daliah Boretski, her father was “James Dean handsome.” He wanted to try his hand at acting in the U.S., so the couple relocated to Los Angeles. Ms. Phipps worked briefly as a voice coach but overall, the endeavour proved unsuccessful.
In 1962, the young family moved to Winnipeg where they lived for a while with Mr. Boretski’s mother. It was a trying time for Ms. Phipps. Her mother-in-law knew nothing and cared less about theatre. Asked by a friend how she survived, Ms. Phipps replied, “I learned how to fold sheets.”
A move to Toronto proved a stepping stone toward success for the couple. Mr. Boretski worked with the CBC while Ms. Phipps made a name for herself with Toronto Arts Productions as the lead in Mother Courage and Her Children at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
She won a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1993 for her performance in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.
“They really were pioneers of Canadian theatre, both of them,” Ms. Boretski said.
Mr. Boretski died in 2001. Even though they had been living apart, Ms. Phipps lamented to friends, “I’ve lost my best friend.”
The door to Ms. Phipps’s Niagara-on-the-Lake home was always open to those in need, whether she could financially afford to be generous or not. A regular churchgoer, she believed in helping others.
“One season, I wasn’t expecting an offer from Shaw and had no place to stay,” said Nuala Fitzgerald, a fellow actor and long-time friend. “Jenny said, ‘You must come and stay with me.’ I accepted but confessed I was a little nervous. ‘Me too,’ she admitted. She thought for a bit then said, ‘I know what we’ll do. I’ll play the landlady and you can play the lodger. If the landlady has any problems she can speak to the lodger, and if the lodger has any problems, she can speak to the landlady.’ And so the matter was settled in true Jenny style with warmth, humour and grace.”
“My Mom had such a difficult time growing up. She wanted to be loved by everybody and give love in return,” Ms. Boretski said. “She found that love in the world and in the theatre.”
Ms. Phipps leaves her children, Paul, Daliah and Wendyl, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.