jakub | March 10, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Joan Shepard’s Tireless Theatrical Spirit

Joan Shepard.

Joan Shepard, an acclaimed actress who was also a producer of summer stock and children’s theatre productions, died on March 3 at the age of 91.

Joan Shepard began her life in the theatre as a child actor on Broadway in productions that starred Tallulah Bankhead, Shirley Booth, Ralph Bellamy, Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, Vivien Leigh, and Laurence Olivier. In a varied career that lasted 75 years, Shepard—whose photos often showed her hair trimmed in an impish pageboy style—retained a childlike enthusiasm for the stage. One of her greatest contributions, later in her career, would be introducing thousands of schoolchildren to the wonder of theatre.

Said Shepard’s daughter Jenn Thompson, “Mama fell in love with the theatre when she got her first job at 7. Laurence Olivier cast her in his production of Romeo and Juliet that he was also acting in. At one point early in the play he carried her out onstage and placed her on a wall, and she fell in love—with him, I suspect, and with everything else she experienced. ‘Stamped with love’ was how she described herself, and she never lost that wonder and delight. I think she always saw the theatre through the eyes of her 7-year-old self.”

Joan Shepard and Tallulah Bankhead in the Theatre Guild’s Broadway production of Philip Barry’s “Foolish Notion” in 1945.

“My mom’s greatest joy was, without a doubt, acting,” said her son, Owen Thompson. “She wore an almost absurd amount of hats, but in her heart of hearts, she was an actor first, last, and always. In a song she once wrote, she referred to her discovery of acting, which happened as a young child, as ‘The way I was to live / The way I was to give.’ And the giving she mentions here became an enormous outflow.”

Performing on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in national tours and at regional theatres, co-founding two theatre companies, songwriting, and producing were all part of that outpouring, which, her son continued, gave “enormously to audiences and artists alike, not only in terms of the uncountable shows she produced and often acted in, but in the opportunities and employment she provided for actors of all levels of experience—particularly to young actors new to the business.” In other words: A lot of Equity cards were earned in shows that Shepard co-produced.

Shepard died of natural causes in her East Village apartment, surrounded by books and memorabilia from a wide life on the stage that included many collaborations with her husband Evan Thompson and her two children, New Yorkers who would leave their parents’ theatrical nest to become actors and directors in their own right. Jenn Thompson is a former Broadway, film, and TV actress who is now a busy theatre director whose credits include work at Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Denver Center Theatre, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, and the new national tour of Annie. Owen Thompson is an actor, director, and teacher who serves as the new artistic director of the Schoolhouse Theater in Westchester County, N.Y.

Joan’s husband, Evan Thompson, died at the age of 83 in 2015. The couple co-founded the touring children’s theatre company Fanfare Theatre Ensemble, a not-for-profit troupe for which they and others wrote adaptations of classic stories that featured them, their children, and many other actors in bookings across the Northeast, Midwest, and as far south as Florida, between the years 1972 and 2014. All four family members played a slew of kid and adult roles with the Equity-affiliated Fanfare, bringing original musicals “to thousands of children in underserved communities while employing hundreds of actors,” Jenn Thompson said, citing such future stars John Goodman and Ken Page as having acted in some of Fanfare’s early shows.

Joan Shepard and Evan Thompson in Fanfare Theatre Ensemble’s “Treasure Island.”

The Fanfare booking venues were as rangy as school auditoriums, Elks clubs, and legit theatres, including Westbury Music Fair on Long Island and Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. Actors, sets, and costumes were loaded onto a passenger van in Manhattan, maps were opened, and ground was covered. Many early-career actors got their first jobs working with Fanfare on such shows as Huckleberry Finn, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Goldilocks, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, Treasure Island, and many more. Composer John Clifton was a frequent collaborator.

The tireless, pixie-like Shepard appeared in 99 percent of the shows, son Owen Thompson said. His mom gamely donned pants to play Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island and was a middle-aged Little Red for a time, before her daughter took over the part and Joan graduated to the role of Grandmother. The tours were lucrative, but the mission was larger than feeding the Thompson-Shepard family: Fanfare was introducing live theatre to generations of kids who might not remember the artists’ names but would have the lasting memory of the theatrical experience.

“We went to some very out-of-the-way places, and the impact was real,” Jenn Thompson said.

Siblings Jenn and Owen also worked with their parents (as actors and later directors) when Shepard, husband Evan, and actor Warren Kelley were asked by director Jane Stanton to help launch a summer stock season at the Connecticut’s historic Ivoryton Playhouse, which was debt-ridden, dormant, and facing closure in 1987. Their summer stock nonprofit Equity company, River Rep Theatre Company, for which Shepard performed and served as managing director, presented 97 productions for 19 seasons, up through 2005, revitalizing the venue, which still operates today under an unrelated producing model.

Joan Shepard was born in 1932 in New York City to Sylvia Wasson Shepard and Hayden Shepard, a trumpet player in the orchestras of Harry Archer and Paul Whiteman. When Whiteman’s band toured to Europe for a stint in the 1930s, Joan’s parents placed her in London with her paternal grandmother. When World War II broke out, the Shepards couldn’t get to London, so Joan was evacuated to New York City, sailing the Atlantic on her own to be reunited with her parents in New York. In Manhattan, Shepard attended the Professional Children’s School. After high school, she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

Her Broadway credits as a young actress include Philip Barry’s Foolish Notion (with Tallulah Bankhead and Mildred Dunnock) for The Theatre Guild in 1945; Tomorrow the World (with Ralph Bellamy and Shirley Booth) in 1943 and later on tour; This Rock by Walter Livingston Faust, featuring Billie Burke in 1943; the short-lived, Elia Kazan-directed The Strings, My Lord, Are False in 1942; A Young Man’s Fancy, a three-act play set at a boys’ camp by Harry Thurschell and Alfred Golden, in 1947 (and later a Kraft Theatre TV version); the Sigmund Romberg musical My Romance in 1948; and Sunny River, an operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Hammerstein, in 1941.

Shepard hit a career high when she played Doris in the original Broadway run of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding starring Julie Harris and Ethel Waters in 1950-51. A decade later, Shepard graduated to Harris’s lead role of tomboy Frankie opposite Waters at Pasadena Playhouse; Waters and Shepard had kept in touch, and the star requested Shepard for the role. The cover of the Pasadena Playhouse playbill shows Shepard on Waters’s lap as they sing a hymn; the keepsake program was treasured by Shepard, her daughter said.

Ethel Waters with Joan Shepard in “The Member of the Wedding” at Pasadena Playhouse in 1964.

Although she made TV and film appearances (HBO’s Girls, ABC’s What Would You Do?, Disney’s College Road Trip), the stage was her primary world. She appeared in a number of national tours, including the Broadway national tour of Oliver! in 1965 and a tour of Marat/Sade. She worked at nonprofit regional theaters including Two River Theater, Goodspeed Opera House, Human Race Theatre, New Harmony Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Cape Playhouse, and elsewhere, and played roles in Off-Off- and Off-Broadway productions, including a 72-performance run of Othello starring Earle Hyman in 1953-54.

In 2012-13, Shepard’s one-woman show Confessions of Old Lady #2, a gathering of songs and stories from her career, was performed in the New York Fringe Festival, at the Manhattan cabaret Don’t Tell Mama, and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where critics and audiences were charmed by her peripatetic history. The cabaret show’s title referred to a role she played in a Disney TV movie (she learned her character’s generic name when she saw it posted on her trailer on set), but it was also a sly nod to the no-part-too-small ethos that she embraced in her career. She eventually took the show to Ivoryton Playhouse a decade after River Rep had left the venue.

“She kept a tally of how many performances she had given onstage over her lifetime,” son Owen Thompson said. “The last time I caught a glimpse of it, the number was north of 9,000.”

In addition to her children, Joan Shepard is survived by daughter-in-law Leda Zukowski, son-in-law Stephen Kunken, and granddaughter Naomi Kunken.

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