Jeanne Pratt and Ken Mackenzie-Forbes on song for 40 years

Jeanne has an incredible collection of friends; they range across the spectrum. We were sitting in a New York cafe and this guy came in, saw Jeanne and came straight over, saying, “Well, hello Jeannie.” It was Rudy Giuliani, then the city’s mayor. Another time, late one evening in Melbourne, Jeanne needed to get some money out of an ATM. As she was doing so, this shady-looking guy standing on the corner started making her feel nervous. As Jeanne took her cash, he called out, “Hi Jeannie, what’s happening at Carlton?” She’s vice-president of the footy club.

She has a great love of all genres of music and can sing almost every song in every show. This stems from the fact she studied piano, and from [her late husband] Richard, who was an actor, chair of the Arts Centre and a tireless supporter of The Production Company, which he co-founded with Jeanne. Since Richard died [in 2009], my partner, John Hay-Mackenzie, and I have done a lot with her socially; one thing I’ve found is that her signature bob intrigues people. It’s a statement that says, “If something works, don’t change it.” She adopts the same approach with The Production Company.

Part of this formula is that she greets patrons before every performance. I join her. It feels like she’s inviting them into her home. It’s an extension of Friday nights at Raheen, her home in Melbourne when she holds Shabbat, which is about bringing the family together over a meal to talk about what’s happened during the week. Paralleling this is her practice on Mondays of coming into the office and joining us for lunch to discuss what’s going on with the company. She has a similar practice with the artists. In a way, she embraces everyone as family.

JEANNE: I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf and never fearful of taking a chance or doing things by myself, but from the word go I found Ken gave me a sense of security. When I’m with him, I feel as if I’m in a safe pair of hands. He and his partner John are like family. They come as a package. John’s also on The Production Company board.

I’ve often said that my sole talent is knowing talent when I see it. Ken is a genius at selecting shows and getting results. I recognised that when he was head of the Victorian State Opera – which never fully valued him – and I was on the board.

He’s been with The Production Company since day one. He’s extremely kind, a rare quality for an artistic director. Together we mould the artistic enterprise with the business side. Most other companies that are funded by the state have 60 people doing the job that we do with three. My opinion is, if we lose money on a production, it’s like saying the operation was a success but the patient died.

At a meeting for our first production, Ken said, “Now listen Jeanne, I’ve been looking at the budget and we have no money for scenery.” I said, “Who said we need scenery? The company is not-for profit. We’re also not-for loss!” So initially we had just a fixed set.

Before every performance, we stand at the top of the escalator in the Arts Centre welcoming everybody. People who are socially secure don’t need me to lionise them but acknowledging people who are lonely and feel invisible means something to them. I’m very sympathetic to people in trouble because as a child I lived in exceptionally humble circumstances.

Ken’s a dear friend. You can’t work together for this many years and not be a friend. We’re both passionate about opera and travel together a lot. The only time he ever says no to me is when I ask what shows we’re doing next year. He sighs and says, “I can’t answer that right now.” He’s raised his voice only once. That was during a performance of Showboat in New York. I knew all the songs and was singing away and Ken and John both turned around and spontaneously – and very loudly – said, “Shhhhh!”

Think of the qualities that epitomise a lovely, old-fashioned gentleman. That’s Ken. He’s like someone out of the 18th or 19th century. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that.

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