Saturday, November 10, 2012

Jenny Harris RIP

Jenny Harris on the left, at the opening of the brand new Albany in Douglas Way, 1982. Credit: Art of Regeneration
Many local people have been stunned to hear the sad news that Jenny Harris, former Executive Director of The Albany, passed away on Tuesday 6th November, at the far too early age of 67 (1944-2012).

A memorial service will be announced shortly.

Such is the breadth of her achievements, influence and inspiration, that tributes have been pouring in for her at a special website Tributes To Jenny, set up for those who knew and worked with her to contribute their thoughts and memories.

I heard the news only an hour before I took a seat at Greenwich Picturehouse to watch Skyfall, and was immediately reminded that without Jenny, the cinema would not be here. In the late 80s, she hatched the idea, located the site and developed the plans for what eventually became the Picturehouse.

For most, she will be remembered for her extensive and passionate contribution to the arts and, in her own words, "as a persuasive advocate for education, training, cultural and creative action and engagement, and their crucial role in cultural, social, political and economic change".

Jenny and Deptford...

Jenny arrived in Deptford in 1972 as co-director of The Combination, a Brighton-based touring fringe theatre company (and cultural and community development project), which became the resident theatre company at the 'old' Albany on Creek Road. Working together with the Albany Institute and Deptford Fund team, the Combination helped to transform the old and forbidding Victorian building into a vibrant fusion of community work and the arts, renamed The Albany Empire.

Although many may attribute the demise of the old building to the arson attack in 1978 (in which it was burnt down), it was actually marked for demolition to make way for road widening. But there had long been plans for a new and more accessible building, and Jenny's drive, enthusiasm and beliefs were central to the creation of the new bulding in Douglas Way, which was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1982. As Executive Director of the new £15m Albany Empire, Jenny oversaw the funding, designing, building and running of the purpose built arts and 'cultural action centre' within which all the projects initiated in the old Albany building could expand and develop.

Those projects included a Community Health project, a Children & their Families Centre, a creche (most important), a silk-screen print shop available for community use (later, print and photography and video projects), an Unemployed Action Group to help those on benefits, an Active Age Project that helped older people, sports & cultural activities, estate-based Outreach Projects (that flourished most on Pepys Estate as Co-oPepys that included holiday play-schemes and community theatre), a special needs project for young people that developed into Heart n' Soul – one of the most successful arts projects ever. And then there's the carnival projects that later saw Harare Dread's Pax Nindi as the Arts Council's man-to-go-to.

Youth Theatre, Music and Dance projects at The Albany at this time launched careers for some of the young people involved. Those that have remained in Deptford include: Wozzy Brewster (now an OBE and originally a member of the Albany's Basement Youth Arts group) who founded Midi Music from the original Lewisham Academy of Music. Irie Dance Company was started by choreographer Bev Glean and continues to this day. Second Wave Youth Arts, started as a young women's drama project by Cath Kilcoyne, produced some successful female writers and directors, and expanded, under the directorship of Ann Considine, to include young men. As well as offering drama, writing, music, dance, youth leadership and advocacy, their exploratory and groundbreaking work with the Met Police, in partnership with Greenwich University, has gained international recognition.

There is no doubting the contributions various men (both black and white, young and old, gay or straight) made to those changing times, but it is notable how many young women, both black or white, were empowered to begin and continue the work started by Jenny and her contemporaries. It was known to all working with Jenny that she was gay, but this made no difference to how people were employed, which was on their merits, black, white, gay or straight. At that time Ken Livingstone and the GLC were leading the vanguard of human rights and equal opportunity, and funding accordingly. Far reaching changes were made during these times, and assimilated – though equality in gender and race may still seem futher away than ever these days.

At the time the GLC was abolished in 1986, The Combination managed a turnover of £2.5million and a staff of over 40 full and part-time staff. In that same year, Jenny left The Albany to develop other projects before going to the National Theatre in 1991, where until 2008, she was Producer and Director of Education & Training. Whilst there, among other things, she initiated the Art of Regeneration, a culture-led social regeneration programme which focused on the creative potential of young people aged 7-27 to access and participate in cultural activities. The partnership with Lewisham and Greenwich Councils, Goldsmiths, Lewisham College and The Albany provided an enormous boost for the latter with an opportunity for refurbishment – The Albany had suffered severe cuts in public funding in the intervening years and had been struggling to survive.

After leaving the National Theatre, Jenny went on to develop a range of projects as a freelance arts and education consultant, and to work with her longest and closest collaborator, John Turner. One of these projects is Emancipation of the Dispossessed, a South East London perspective on the slave trade, which features the docudrama, Blood Sugar, written and directed by John. She had also begun to digitally archive images connected to the projects she'd been involved in.

Jenny's return to The Albany in 2001 with the Art of Regeneration was, for some, like a mother coming home, since the 'new' Albany in Douglas Way was her baby. It is indeed poignant that she has died in the same year that The Albany celebrates its 30th birthday. She will be sorely missed.

Hear Jenny reflect on both the old and new Albany in an audio clip hidden away on the Art of Regeneration website.
See also Albany History on The Albany's website.
See Jenny's biography on her own website, which also documents many of her projects.

Modified 12 & 16 November 2012

Obituary in Guardian Online by Richard Eyre (18th November 2012)


  1. A beautiful (and richly deserved) tribute to a wonderful woman. Thanks, Sue.

  2. Ta for reading...T'was hard to write even though cobbling together all available evidence. Am sure better obit will be written in due course!

  3. That was a lovely piece. What a powerful force she was. Can't believe she's gone.

  4. Lovely piece of writing Sue. If it wasn't for the Children & families centre at the Albany when I was studying and working - I would never have met my dearest friends. I'm only distantly connected but she touched my life, and must have done this for so many individuals and families.

  5. It is lovely to read a small segment of Jenny's journey, bringing sweet memories of a past not forgotten. Jenny is part of my creative & social journey and she will always be remembered as a strong, intelligent, creative and powerful woman who moved mountains!

    Thanks Sue for gathering the info and paying tribute to Jenny.

  6. Jenny was a a phenomenal woman she inspired and touched so many people, young & mature, from all walks of life, in ways they have yet to discover. She was my mentor, my role model, my friend, I feel privilege to have known her and will always give thanks to the opportunities she guided my way. Through her I have met some wonderful people whom have become my dear friends, she made me believe I can do and must do, I miss her. Thank you for posting this snapshot of Jenny's life its hard for me to articulate to others the impact she had within the community now I can direct them to this tribute in days, months and years to come and they can hear from Jenny herself what she stood for, what she believed in and how she made things happen. Her Legacy will live on, one cannot mention the Albany without Jenny Harris in thought and spirit.

  7. Lovely piece of writing Sue, well done. Jenny was so amazing: the Joan Littlewood of Deptford!She was always encouraging and wise but never put up with any crap. She believed in people and what they could achieve, many times those people had been overlooked or passed over but Jenny saw potential in people. This attribute has been carried on in the work of people like Wozzy Brewster. Other people have talked about the influence her management style has had on their later careers. I will really miss her. She was one of the people who gave me the confidence to get up on stage and always made me feel I was fabulous, and so I became fabulous! As someone at her funeral said 'if Jenny said you could do it, you realised you could!'. I am glad she did not have a prokonged illness but I wish it could have happened 30 years later.