Malcolm Morrison, who expanded the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in size and scope, died Friday at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford after a long battle with cancer. He was 73 and lived in West Hartford with his wife of 42 years, actress and teacher Johanna Morrison.
The British-born Morrison, who was a mentor to generations of future actors, directors and designers, headed Hartt from 1996 to the end of 2008, following his leadership role in North Carolina School of the Arts.
After a one-year sabbatical in 2009 Morrison returned to Hartt as a theater professor. He continued to direct at the school and elsewhere including a 2010 Hartt production "Coram Boy" and "Hamlet" in 2012. Last month he staged "12 Angry Men" at Northern Stage in Vermont.
"Under Malcolm's leadership, the Hartt School is now larger and more successful across a wide spectrum of performing arts programs than at any time in its history," said university President Walter Harrison at the time of Morrison's announcement that he was stepping down as dean. "Not only the Hartt School but the entire university is deeply in his debt."
Morrison oversaw the conversion of the former Thomas Cadillac distributorship in Hartford's North End into the new $21 million Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2008.
Hartt was primarily a music school when Morrison arrived. He added majors in dance, theater and musical theater to its internationally known programs and oversaw a significant upgrade in the quality of students' performances and presentations.
Morrison battled several bouts with cancer over the past 10 years.
The British-born Morrison came to Hartt in 1996 to direct the theater division. He was brought in by Larry Allen Smith, dean of Hartt and former dean of music at the North Carolina School of the Arts, who asked Morrison for advice on expanding curriculum to include all aspects of the performing arts.
Morrison was made interim dean in October 1997 and was named dean the following year.
Morrison also directed "Noises Off," in 2009 at Hartford Stage, based on a production he staged at Monomy Theatre in Chatham, Mass.
An identical twin, Morrison grew up in Derbyshire, a coal mining and agricultural county in central England. His father, an insurance agent, was a Scottish Presbyterian; his mother, a homemaker, loved the theater and would attend regional theaters with her son.
In an 2006 interview with The Hartford Courant, Morrison recalled an early-morning job as a teenager at a bakery in the mid-'50s that would provide enough ``for bus fare, one cigarette, one match, one rum and peppermint water and my ticket to a show. That was bliss to me.
``It was just a given that I was going to [go into theater], but my father said, `How can you portray life when you haven't seen it?' As a result of that advice, I left school at 16 and joined the police force.''
He saw a lot of real-life conflicts, he said, ``but I also realized after three years that I was ducking the issue. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do, which was theater.''
Because he had dropped out of school, Morrison had to make up those lost classes while attending the Rose Bruford College in England, a prestigious school that stressed professional and practical training in the theater.
``The one person I wanted to be — above everyone else -— was John Gielgud, who used to visit the school, along with Peggy Ashcroft, Wendy Hiller. They all turned up, and we'd sit around and talk about `Hamlet' or whatever. Gielgud's work on Shakespeare was quite spellbinding. Watching and listening, I felt there was a richness, beauty and depth behind it that only he could penetrate.''
Just as he was about to start his acting career in the '60s, he was asked to remain at the school and join the faculty.
``I thought, `Why not?' It certainly didn't preclude me from auditioning, although after four years of teaching and directing there, I didn't go for one audition.''
He also started adjudicating at theater festivals, lecturing and even coaching actors for the film ``A Man for All Seasons.'' In 1970, he became head of the college's acting program. It was the same year he met his future wife, Johanna, when he was lecturing in Manchester. ``I was standing at the bar, and this lady walked down the stairs, and I thought, `Oh, my God.' So I bought her a gin and tonic, and we were married the following year. Most people were giving up hope for me by that time.''
Coming to America
With his rising profile in academia, Morrison found himself being wooed to help start theater academies in the U.S. In 1976 he became dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts.
It was a ``weird'' time for American theatrical training, he said. ``There were endless improvisatory classes that didn't seem successful unless someone had a breakdown or took off their clothes. What I tried to do was help structure a program and get back some essentials such as: If you can't be heard, it's not worth doing. I got some sensible movement and literary training into the curriculum so students would know what it is they're acting.''
Morrison said he was merging ``the adventure and dare that American actors are so good at'' with solid training in the classics.
``It was a combination of the traditional and the eclectic,'' said the multiple Tony Award-nominated actor Terrence Mann (``Cats,'' ``Les Miserables,'' ``Beauty and the Beast''), who was a student there in 1976. ``Malcolm took the `Englishisms' out of Shakespeare and made you come at it from your own sense of what that poetry meant to you. But along the way, you sure were taught how to handle verse, too.''
Added Morrison: ``It seemed to me there were two theaters in this country at the time. There were those who wanted to ape the British and those who wanted to do their own thing. But they weren't incompatible. I would hear things like, `American actors can't do Shakespeare' and that was rubbish. They very much could, just not necessarily on the terms that we did it. But there was something kind of bolder, more experiential and experimental about it. The emotions were there even if the scholarship wasn't, but it certainly made an exciting evening in the theater. If you could put the two things together it could be wonderful.''
He brought in fresh and exciting faculty faces, including a professor of dramatic literature whom he met at a Wendy's, where the man was working.
``He wrote his thesis on sexuality and Moliere, and there was something about him as I was served my double burger with cheese.''
While he was dean he also became artistic director of the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, finding a corner of a new convention center to host a theater and finding warmth and support in the American South. ``The community in North Carolina was so behind the school, which they adored. It was a thrilling time,'' Morrison said.
A move west in 1987 as director of the new National Theatre Conservatory, part of the Denver Center Theater, proved less successful, lasting only a year. He said he left because the graduate program always took second place to the theater, he said.
In 1989, he was off to the Midwest, where he was chairman of the department of theater and dance at the University of Wisconsin for seven years.
Off to Hartt
In the mid-1990s, Larry Allen Smith, dean of Hartt and former dean of music at the North Carolina School of the Arts, asked Morrison for advice on expanding curriculum to include all aspects of the performing arts.
Hartt ``was undergoing this identity crisis,'' Morrison said. ``Are we this music school we talk of from the past, or are we a performing arts school that moves into the future? I think that it genuinely didn't know. Clearly what it has become is a conservatory in a university setting dedicated to vocational training.
``But I came not to run things,'' he said. ``I came to get back to the theater. But somehow or another, life changes things and I was offered the job [as dean in 1998].''
Coming from the theater, the appointment of Morrison not simply as the leader of the new theater division but as dean surprised many people -- including some in the music faculty, given that Hartt's stature in that field.
``I am aware for some people it was very uneasy thing, and my appointment ruffled a few feathers on the music side,'' he said, ``but I hope I have been able to demonstrate that I'm actually reasonably literate in and appreciative of music. My role is not to dictate what's done but to facilitate how we determine what is done, and that's a very different thing. I try not to interfere. Occasionally I do, but the artistic leadership of each of the divisions resides with its director.''
Integration of the arts has been his mission as dean, he says, and he points to various productions, performances and workshops that have called upon Hartt's expertise in music, theater and dance.
Morrison said, however, that he was distressed at the lack of arts education among arriving students. ``At one time you could presume a fairly substantial literary background of your students so you could make references to certain of the more popular Shakespearean plays and maybe even the Greeks and everyone would know what you're talking about. I can tell you now that's not true.''
Morrison said the lack of arts education — as well as the changes in professional theater (the loss of resident acting companies, safe programming that avoids difficult classics and the increase in smaller cast and solo shows) — all contribute to "a cultural myopia."
``I'm concerned by the entire education system, that there isn't a substantial preparation for the arts — or even the experience of it. I think there's something to be said for sitting in a dark theater or listening to a great piece of music to realize that it stirs feelings in you — and that makes the difference.''
Asked if there was a passage in ``King John,'' the play he was directing at the time of the 2006 interview, that he felt a personal connection to, given the issues of mortality he had faced over the years, Morrison thought for a moment and then recited Prince Henry's comments on King John's failing health:
``'Tis strange that death should sing. I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan, Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death. And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings His soul and body to their lasting rest.''
``I like the idea of going out singing,'' he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun