Kate Harcourt was named a Dame Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in 1996, for her contribution to theatre. Alongside theatre and radio, Harcourt's acting career includes many screen roles as well.
Born in 1927, Harcourt was raised in Amberley, North Canterbury, "lucky enough to be a country child". She was the youngest child of a farmer and a "highly intelligent" woman from rural Australia. Harcourt inherited her mother's love of music: after a short stint as a kindergarten teacher, she got a diploma in singing from Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music, then trained at a London opera school.
Her husband, radio announcer Peter Harcourt, would help Kate conquer her stage nerves. By the 60s Listen with Mother, a morning radio show for pre-schoolers, led her to television, as host of the Wellington version of children's show Junior Magazine.
Harcourt spent much of the 1970s organising and compering daily fashion shows for Wellington department store Kirkcaldie and Stains. A job sticking up posters for Downstage Theatre led her into acting. "When I was doing publicity every now and then I'd get the chance to get up on stage," she told Capital Times. "The parts gradually got bigger and then came roles in film, radio and television".
In 1981 she starred in 'Free Enterprise', part of Loose Enz, a series of plays for television. Written by celebrated playwright Greg McGee (Foreskin's Lament), the tale sees Harcourt playing a cantankerous spinster who runs a cafe and rails against 'bludgers' and 'foreigners'.
1994 saw a starring role in short film The Dig, which screened as part of a special showcase of Kiwi shorts at the Cannes Film Festival. Harcourt plays one half of a happily retired couple whose endless digging beneath the house has unexpected consequences. She also had a key role in Niki Caro tele-movie Plain Tastes: playing the elderly Iris, whose slow decline frames the story.
Harcourt has also acted in a run of feature films and television series, often in parental or grandmother roles. She was mother to the hero in Mr Wrong, Savage Islands, and historical television series Hanlon, and in 2008 appeared in Sima Urale's Apron Strings.
The same year, she starred in one off play 'New Brew at Brewster Street', part of Māori Television anthology series Table Plays. This time she plays a woman waiting for her grand-daughter to stay in her cottage. Three years later she won the Best Actress award at Rhode Island Film Festival for short film Pacific Dreams. Harcourt plays Grace, a new arrival at a rest home who butts heads with a stern head nurse.
Her stage CV includes time with women's comedy collective Hens Teeth, and European performances of Ibsen classic Hedda Gabler. In 2011 she listed her favourite stage experiences: acting in Renee's Depression-era tale Wednesday to Come, as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest; and Flowers from my Mother's Garden.
Commissioned for the 1998 International Festival of the Arts and much performed since, Flowers sees Kate sharing the stage with her daughter Miranda. Then-NBR reviewer John Smythe argued the play shared "the experiences of a mother, daughter and extended family with an ingenious simplicity that belies the depth of insight. It's a prime example of how universal the particular can be."
A film version of Flowers from my Mother's Garden is in development. Documentary It's in the Genes Girls (1993) includes mother and daughter among the women discussing whether artists are created by nature or nurture. Kate's son, Fair Go journalist Gordon Harcourt, is also part of the Harcourt family narrative.
Niels Reinsborg, 'A lifetime walking the boards' (Interview) — Capital Times, 12 October 2011, Page 7
Joseph Romanos, 'Dame Kate on her life well led' (Interview) — The Wellingtonian, 24 June 2010, Page 12
'Kate Harcourt', in Loving All of It. Editor Gordon McLauchlan (Auckland: Random House, 2010)'
Kate Harcourt' Gail Cowan Management website. Accessed 15 August 2012
'Kate Harcourt' Celebrity Speakers website (Broken link). Accessed 15 August 2012
'Biography of my Skin'. Theatreview website. Accessed 15 August 2012