I'm deeply saddened to report that retired U of M theatre professor Josie Helming
has left the building. She was literally and figuratively a towering presence within the Memphis theatre community and she will be sorely missed.
I was waiting tables at La Montagne, a little health food joint near the University, when I first met and spoke with Helming. She walked her long, tall, silver-haired self into my station with stage, screen
, and TV star
Michael Jeter in tow. She asked if I could take their order and leave a pitcher of tea on the table so they could talk uninterrupted about some important-sounding thing called "repertory." I answered with some snide joke about actors and being identified as a fellow theater person was then invited to interrupt as much as I liked— as long as I was bringing refills.
I never officially studied with Helming, but learned a lot from her during my short time as a grad student at the U of M. In return I taught her how to make barbecue and black-eyed pea potage for New Year's brunch. And we often joked that I'd named my firstborn twin
after her, which isn't technically true, though I always said I'd be honored to have her on as a co-namesake.
In 2009, when Helming was awarded the Eugart Yerian lifetime achievement award for excellence and dedication to Memphis theater, Rhodes professor Cookie Ewing described her as, "The backbone for major training in this city."
As actor/director Kell Christie further explained, "You can walk into any theater in this city and hear some actor doing a vocal warmup they learned from Josie."
Voices of the South playwright Jerre Dye agreed. "She is so completely woven into the fabric of this community," he said following an early Memphis performance of his original script Cicada,
which was performed in Chicago
last year and nominated for a pair of Jeff Awards.
Ewing, Christie, and Dye all studied with Helming.
Art by Nick Dobbins via Kell Christie
Josie Helming isn't from Memphis. But to hear her tell it, 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 once told me. She also spent some time in California, Texas, Missouri, and Louisiana before settling into her position at the University of Memphis.
"I was a student in the '60s," Helming said. "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 walked onto campus 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 said. But she wasn't exactly gung-ho for theatre either because, "Those people were weird.
"But the theater always takes in wounded birds, doesn't it?" Helming then asked, remembering how she backed into her theater major.
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 also 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," Helming said, remembering her summers at Arrow Rock performing Shaw and Moliere in a space so small the side exits were literally the church's windows.
After four years teaching at the University of Memphis, Helming left 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 said 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,
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 directed several notable and award-winning productions, including The Crane Wife
, The Dining Room,
. More recently she has directed productions of Well and The Memory of Water
A memorial service will be held Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 6:30 p.m. in the Chapel at the Memphis Theological seminary. A celebration of Helming's life will be held in the "Big Red" theatre at the U of M.
*Much of this remembrance was originally published in The Memphis Flyer under the appropriate title "Rough & Tumble."
UPDATE: The U of M Memorial Service/Program has been rescheduled. The finalized date is Saturday, January 10th at 2:00pm in "Big Red" at the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Memphis.