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Good Knight! U of M staff member wins top acting award

By Greg Russell

It was a singing performance that, quite frankly, could make your hair stand on end. But it was also a performance by Jude Knight that would cause a chuckle among her friends who recognize her as an accomplished singer, and one that landed her a top acting award.

Knight, an assistant to U of M Information Technologies Vice President Doug Hurley, played the role of Florence Foster Jenkins in a Theatre Memphis production of Souvenir. Jenkins was a wealthy East Coast socialite who became quite famous in a bizarre sort of way for her lack of pitch, tone and overall singing ability.

Jude Knight playing the lead role of Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir. At left is co-star David Shipley. Knight�s performance earned her an Ostrander award.
Jude Knight playing the lead role of Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir. At left is co-star David Shipley. Knight’s performance earned her an Ostrander award.

Knight’s portrayal won her an Ostrander Award for best leading actress in a drama. The Ostranders, or Ossies as they are also known, are the local version of the Tony Awards, and have been around for 27 years.

“It was a very challenging role,” said Knight on playing the terrible, but lovable singer. “She frequently sang off-key, either sharp or flat. In my ear, I would try to sing up one note or down one note, which makes you either sharp (too high) or flat (too low).

“People in the audience really would laugh, especially people who knew me. They were shocked I was singing so badly and singing the wrong notes.”

The role was so challenging that during rehearsals, the director would sometimes have to intervene because Knight was singing too many of the right notes.

It was Knight’s fifth Ostrander since 1990: she won two leading actress awards in the musical category for The Sound of Music and She Loves Me and two more for best supporting actress roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Follies.

“I loved my earlier lead roles, of course, in My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon, etc., but now I am having a ball with choice character roles, such as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie,” she said.

Knight’s win wasn’t the only one of the evening with a campus connection — the U of M’s Department of Theatre and Dance carted off a truckload of Ossies.

“Combined, there were 43 categories of awards given and our theatre faculty, students or recent grads won 23 of those awards,” said theatre chair Bob Hetherington. “While we do not do productions with the purpose of winning awards, it is especially gratifying to be recognized for our successes.

“I believe this is a powerful testament to the impact we are having on Memphis area theatre,” he continued. “In many categories, we were competing against ourselves. All together, nearly 70 U of M faculty, grads or students were nominated this year in the competition.”

Hetherington won best director in the drama category for The Seafarer while U of M instructor Michael Gravois got the nod for best leading actor in a drama in the same production. Theatre and dance professor Holly Lau won a best choreography/movement honor in the college division for Dark of the Moon and assistant professor Janice Lacek took the top award for costume design for Hay Fever, also in the college division.

Theatre and dance faculty, students and alumni won 23 Ostranders, including one by assistant professor Janice Lacek for costume design for Hay Fever, pictured above.
Theatre and dance faculty, students and alumni won 23 Ostranders, including one by assistant professor Janice Lacek for costume design for Hay Fever, pictured above.

Knight said she received a degree in music from the U of M but the stage has also been a passion since her first performance at age 10. She has played more than 30 shows at Theatre Memphis since 1973.

Souvenir was one of those ‘perfect’ theatre moments, with a wonderful director, script, cast and crew,” Knight said.

The U of M staff member said even with the grueling weeks of rehearsals, the joy of performing live is rewarding.

“It provides a 'break' from the routine, and you don't have time to dwell on anything negative. But as they say in show business, ‘Don't quit your day job!’

“I've been very lucky over the years to work with very talented people who make my avocation so enjoyable. Memphis is very fortunate to have such an active theatre community.”

For a clip of Knight in Souvenir, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9G2r1CEZkI&feature=player_embedded

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