Annie and Roger Kirk, Helen’s parents, gave this tribute at Helen’s funeral
January 9th 2006
“When Helen was a little girl, an important part of the daily bedtime ritual was what we called “the story of the day”. She would sit on Annie’s or my knee, cuddle up and wait expectantly and it would start off, “Once upon a time there was a little girl called Helen, who lived in a house in Devon with her mum and dad and her brothers, and her little cat Suki and her collie dog Sally…” and go on to talk about all the things that had happened in the day. Helen would interrupt if we missed anything important and she would love it if we started off with silly things like, “Once upon a time there was a little frog called Helen” -“No, not a little frog, a little girl! – accompanied with peals of laughter. She would love it too if we put in ridiculous things like flying in balloons or eating the dog’s dinner instead of her own….
So this is just a little bit of the rich story of Helen’s all-too-brief life, and like her story of the day, it is a story full of wonder, delight and joy.
Helen was born in Abingdon, Oxford and her arrival made the family feel complete. Tom and Alex will speak later of her as a sister and we all share a sense of just how important she was to all of us. From the first, she was a little poppet, with her round face and sturdy legs: pictures of which she would later scoff at as showing “that little fattie”. She joined playgroups and music groups and made many friends who remember her today. From as far back as we remember, she loved make believe and dress up and wanted to become an actor.
We all moved to America for a year when she was four and she revelled in the new experience of the gorgeous Fall with the Technicolor bright leaves and the long snowy winter with her first taste of skiing, her kindergarten snow picnics and her first strong girlie friendship with Quinnie Kaiser. Soon everything was “Quinnie says this” and Quinnie says that” until we could quite happily have throttled friend Quinnie. She also met Nancy, the mother of a classmate, and Helen was fascinated by her firm beliefs that in a former life she, Nancy, had been a sea otter. Nothing would do but that Helen too believed she was descended from an otter and for the rest of her life, she felt a special affinity with otters and would read about them and collect toy otters.
In New York State, Helen, being Helen, quickly mimicked the local accent and for a year we had an American daughter who on her return to the UK and her move to Devon, fascinated all her new classmates at Shaldon school by calling trainers “sneakers” and judging everything she liked as “cool” – a real Quinnie-ism.
At Shaldon School, Helen formed some of her most lasting and important friendships and many of those dear friends are here today. They will share with you afterwards some of the highlights of their times together, the dancing and singing, the sports, the residentials – and, of course, the acting. On her last day at Shaldon, being allowed to dress as they wanted, Helen accurately dressed up as her Head teacher, Frances Moule, who is still Shaldon’s Head today. She reduced the assembled school to squeals of delight as, with her blue pleated skirt and flowered blouse, she ordered fellow pupils to pick up litter and to sharpen their pencils.
During that final year in primary school, her name was drawn out of the hat to be Shaldon Carnival Queen and she wowed everyone with her prettiness and confident poise. Helen loved being the centre of attention. From Shaldon School to Teignmouth Community College and her circle of friends grew wider. She loved her studies, none more than her Drama, and it became clear that acting was going to be her life. She performed in college and out, and during her years there, she continued to act with the Shaldon Theatre Company where she first appeared in the children’s chorus line when the whole family acted in Pinocchio.
During her teens, she played Peter Pan, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (to my hapless Wizard) where her love of animals and her confident American accent came into its own and later Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. We all owe a huge debt to the many many people who fostered Helen’s talents over the years, from the very earliest. Many of you are here today.
Next to Exeter College – and yet more friends and, of course, more drama. There her talents continued to be nurtured and she took every advantage of city life. She loved shopping, going to the theatre and clubs and continued to radiate that sheer joie-de-vivre that drew people to her. To be in her presence was to be warmed in your heart and refreshed in your soul.
Finishing at Exeter meant choosing the next big step in her life and she debated the merits of going directly to a London drama school or going to university. Finally she chose university, with the post-graduate option at a drama school and spent the next three very happy years at Aberystwyth University, improving her Welsh accent, her toast-burning skills and her surfing – the main attraction of which was the chance to sun herself on beaches among the golden people. She never did learn to surf. University vacations meant long summers in Newquay working in the bars and enjoying the surfy life. She never did learn to surf.
In her middle year at Aber, Helen won a scholarship to the University of Montana and enjoyed another year in the States. She loved every minute of it, as she loved so many things in her life. Yes, more friends, more joyful times, more drama and a chance to learn cheer-leading skills, a dream from childhood. One excited phone call (delivered at the high pace we all know Helen spoke with when animated – which was often ) was incredulous with delight that she could get credits towards her degree by going snow-boarding…”Snowboarding, Mum –I love it!”
A return to Aber and her 21st birthday – dressed up (of course) with her Aber friends this time and showing off her freshly-honed skills as an all-American High School cheer leader, complete with huge fluffy pom poms. There was time for serious study, of course, and serious it was. Helen had an amazing ability to focus on what she felt was important – and her studies were one of them. She wrote a powerful treatise for her Finals based on her experiences of working with children in Theatre-in-Education (for which she had true gifts) and playing Fania in Arthur Miller’s compelling play, Playing for Time.
The play concerns the true story of a French prisoner of war, Fania Fenelon, and her experience in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz in 1944. Her reputation as a singer in Paris saves her life, as she is placed within an orchestra of eleven other women, under the instruction of Alma Rose. Their survival rests upon the success of their frequent concerts for the camp commander, Commandant Kramer, and his peers. It is a dramatisation of Fenelon’s harrowing experience of the Polish camp that explores friendships, sexuality and morality. In my attempt to create my character as truthfully as possible, I turned to historical research concerning the Holocaust.
And she did, with a grim determination to tackle head-on – through a proposal for a series of Theatre-in-Education workshops with young people – one of the great issues of history that still resonates so powerfully today. She went on to reflect on the importance of drama in her own life and in the lives of young people as a vital way in which to confront the realities of our collective past. She then poses a profound question about the importance of Theatre-in-Education and of active learning as a medium of understanding, linking awareness of the holocaust through drama to an understanding of the roots of issues like racism and the Stephen Lawrence case.
The arts have always played a very significant part in my life. As a spectator of – and more often a participator in – various areas of the arts at school, from Caribbean music workshops to The National Theatre’s Shakespearian Drama Workshops, these events have left lasting imprints in my memory, that have never failed to lose any of their impact. I believe this is a consequence of learning gained through active participation, of being challenged with something fresh and exciting to a young and impressionable mind. My proposal thus began to take shape. Could my ignorance in important historical matters – such as the Holocaust – have been prevented had it been presented in a way that involved active participation requiring me to grapple with this challenging historical material? Would a scheme that involved the arts in association with history prove a more lasting lesson?
The quality of such theoretical work combined with her practical work was clearly recognised by her tutors and she gained a First Class Honours degree in Drama at Aberystwyth, the first that the Aberystwyth department had awarded for a number of years.
Helen then went to Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, where, surprise surprise, she made yet more dear friends, many of whom are here today and who will be paying their own tribute through dramatic readings later in the service.
One of Helen’s friends recalls her sheer love of acting:
One memory is close to my heart. We both chose to be meerkats in an animal studies class. Helen was a fantastic mimic: nibbling, digging, flirting and making these funny chipmunky noises with absolute conviction. It made me laugh so much, and I remember wondering how the hell it was possible to still be that attractive as a meerkat in a leotard.
Perhaps what the friend did not know was that Helen carried out thorough observational research on meerkats at Shaldon Zoo – so typical of the sheer professionalism with which she tackled her work. She loved it at Mountview and the hard message about just how tough it is to become a working actor that Mountview taught her only fuelled her determination to succeed. Over the next two years, she worked purposefully and diligently to become a professional actor, chasing up leads, going to auditions, scouring the advertisements. She played Teresa in the play Italian-American Reconciliation at the Finsborough Theatre, Catford to good reviews. When we went to see the play, in a typical show of high spirits after the show, she danced on the empty performing space with her equally fun-loving uncle Ian, my brother. Ian, too, sadly died earlier in 2005. He would have been devastated to have lost his beloved niece.
What sense can we make of Helen’s death? The only way we can go forward is to live our lives as she did, making the very best of everyday. Message after message, letter after letter, card after card express a common theme. This young woman was special, exceptional. Her smile that everyone responded to so directly came out of an intense inner joy in life. She lived her life as I hope to live mine, not seeing joy as something you only get after doing something else, an end goal, but as the very way you should live your life, the journey and not the destination.
Her life was short, far, far, far too short. We shall never know what further she could have achieved as actor, wife, mother, friend, teacher. But she lived a life few of us can hope to match in its intensity. Person after person reports on the sheer vivacity, the sheer pace she lived her life, the radiance and the energy that poured from her. Candles lit for Helen by friends and contacts burn as we speak in five continents. As the Nepalese saying puts it:
Better to have lived one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.
One is reminded of Blake’s Tyger! Tyger! burning bright…
She was a true lion, our Helen. In the words of Shakespeare, who himself lost a much-loved child:
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
The final words must be Helen’s own. She loved life, loved her family, friends and very special boyfriend Ben. She wanted to make a positive difference, and by God she did.
She wanted drama and the arts to reach out and transform young lives as it did hers. In the last paragraph of her dissertation she points the way for us to continue her dreams, dreams she never gave up on striving to achieve. Referring to the use of Playing for Time with young people, she writes:
This proposal can help to raise awareness in young people of the dangers of prejudice and stereotyping so they are further awakened to similar attitudes in their own society. Furthermore, there is a need to recognise that changes must start from within and we must look to ourselves, and the way we relate to one another, if we are to influence our wider society for the better.
In setting up The Helen Foundation in her honour, we shall make the flame she lit so brightly, burn on long into the future. When Helen came into the world, a star indeed was born, and it will never cease to shine.”
“When Helen came into the world, a star indeed was born, and it will never cease to shine.”