On Sunday, August 30th, when the Memphis theater community comes together to celebrate the best of the 2008-'09 season at the annual Ostrander Awards, a toast will also be raised honoring the life and accomplishments of actor, director, and educator Joanna "Josie" Helming. Helming, a retired co-chair of the University of Memphis Theatre and Dance Department is being honored with the Eugart Yerian Award for Lifetime Achievement.
"What you have to understand is that Josie is the backbone for major training in this city," says Cookie Ewing, artistic director for the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College and the 2007 Eugart Yerian recipient.
Kell Christie, Theatre Memphis' artistic director who took her MFA at the U of M and studied Chekhov with Helming, elaborates: "You can walk into any theater in this city and hear some actor doing a vocal warmup they learned from Josie."
"When you look at all the things that are happening today, so much of it goes back to Josie," Ewing says, singling out Jerre Dye, the actor, designer, writer, and artistic director for Voices of the South as an example.
Dye concurs. "She is so completely woven into the fabric of this community," he says following a performance of his original script Cicada.
Helming isn't originally from Memphis. She's not originally from anywhere, really. She was born in Minnesota, but her family soon moved to New York, then to Florida, then Massachusetts.
"Mostly we moved looking for work," she says. And there would be time spent in California, Texas, Missouri, and Louisiana before settling into her position at the University of Memphis.
"I was a student in the '60s," Helming says. "And in the '60s there was this idea that you should move around a lot, see a lot of places and things. And I did."
Helming's philosophy as a professor and mentor was informed by the difficulties she faced as an undergraduate with little direction and less means. She wasn't always the best student and failed her math and science courses repeatedly. She also had to leave school periodically to work and put aside enough money to re-enroll. She had no idea what she wanted to do when she enrolled as a freshman at the University of Florida. Maybe she'd be a history major. Perhaps she'd study political science and become a lawyer. None of that worked out.
"American history turned out to be the most boring class in the world," she says.
"I never wanted to be in the theater," she says. "Those people were weird.
"But the theater always takes in wounded birds, doesn't it?" Helming asks, remembering how she backed into her theater major after being cast as in a leading role in a play by Shaw that she absolutely did not want to perform.
While building sets for the University of Florida's theater department, Helming met graduate students Keith Kennedy and Steve Malin, who, after finishing their studies, would become instrumental in developing the University of Memphis' graduate program. She also met scenic designer Henry Swanson, another future U of M professor who co-founded the Lyceum, a professional theater in a tiny converted church in Arrow Rock, Missouri, where she sometimes worked. "Many things were forged in that crucible," says Helming, remembering her summers at Arrow Rock performing Shaw and Moliere in that tiny space where the side exits were literally the church's windows.
After only four years teaching at the University of Memphis, Helming left for a period of time to start an influential childrens' theater troupe called the Red Balloon Players, an organization she co-founded with Joanne Malin, the actor and director who would eventually launch Theatre Memphis' educational troupe ShoWagon. "What we wanted to do with Red Balloon was to show that blacks and whites could work together with no strings attached," Helming says of the scrappy company that performed in Memphis area parks using the wagons from old Cotton Carnival floats as a stage. Actors Helming worked with and trained for Red Balloon included Michael Jeter, who eventually won a Tony for his performance in Grand Hotel, and Larry Riley, who appeared on television in Knots Landing and as C.J. Memphis in the film A Soldiers' Story.
Helming retired from the University of Memphis in 2002.
Over the years Helming has directed several Ostrander Award-winning productions, including The Crane Wife, The Dining Room, and Translations. More recently she has directed productions of Well and The Memory of Water.