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Friday March 12, 2010

'Don't write about me, dahling, write about the theatre'

With charm, guile and toughness, this theatre administrator made her singular and considerable mark

For most of its patrons, the theatre world understandably consists of things on stage: actors, the hand of directors, the work of set, lighting, sound and costume designers.

Offstage, however, stands another rank of talent - administrators, producers, general managers. Largely anonymous and unheralded, they budget, find money, juggle contingencies, co-ordinate resources. Without them, it's safe to say there would be no theatre of quality mounted in this or any other country.

The late June Faulkner was a paradigm of the breed: hard-working, passionate about the arts, infinitely resourceful, blessed with a thick Rolodex - a human combustion formed by a fusion of charm, guile and toughness.

She left her singular mark on three major cultural institutions: the Toronto Workshop Productions, the Shaw Festival, and the Young People's Theatre and, after retirement in 1992, served on the boards of the Ontario Film Development Corporation, the Dora Awards, and the Theatre Museum.

Faulkner died recently in Toronto, at the age of 84.

The story of how TWP acquired its downtown home illustrates her remarkable ability in navigating the tricky waters of Canadian culture-building. When she joined George Luscombe's pioneering, left-wing company in the early 1960s, he was working out of a factory basement in a deserted part of town. June told him the theatre needed a centre-city venue, and that she would handle administration.

Luscombe agreed, but registered the obvious, seemingly crippling caveat: TWP barely subsisted. There were certainly no surplus funds to renovate a building.

For Faulkner, that was merely a minor detail. She found the site, the current home of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre at 12 Alexander St., and hired a contractor to renovate for an estimated $30,000.

"I never deliberately lied to him," Faulkner later recalled. "I just said we were funded by Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. I never said that money was for operations, not for the building." When the contractor arrived for payment, Faulkner confessed that she simply didn't have the money.

Two years later, TWP finally paid off the debt - at 50 cents on the dollar. "Well," explained Faulkner, "the theatre had to be built."

Peter Moss, artistic director of the Young People's Theatre, worked with Faulkner for 12 years. His strongest memories, he wrote recently, "have to do with June's deep understanding of the role of the arts in people's lives and ... her amazing power to woo people into supporting the arts - not just with their money, but with their time, their hearts and their minds." She had, he says, "a journalist's instinct for the telling moment and finding the truth behind the story you were trying to hide from her."

Born June Lewis in Cardiff, Wales, Faulkner learned her love for the arts from her father Carl, a greens keeper for the Cardiff Golf Club and an avid reader. As a young adult, she worked backstage for a theatre company touring Shakespeare. Later, hired as a nanny, she fell in love with her employer, John Faulkner, and soon inherited his family of three children. Others might have seen young kids as an impediment to travel and adventure, but June and John set off first for Cyprus and then Bora Bora.

They never made it to the South Pacific. Crossing Canada en route west, they stopped in Toronto, where June found work with the Avro Arrow jet-building project. A surveying assignment for John took the couple to Port Arthur, Ont., where June worked as a reporter for the News Chronicle and then for a travel agency. She also acted, winning a Dominion Drama festival award for her role in Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning.

Back in Ontario, she became pregnant with a son, Christopher and the couple settled in Atikokan. At a drama workshop in Quetico Provincial Park they met Luscombe. He'd spent five years studying in London with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, a politically charged company that generated landmark productions of A Taste of Honey and Oh, What a Lovely War. Imbued with those ideas, Luscombe wanted to create a company that would precipitate social change.

Inspired by him, the Faulkners decamped for Toronto. John joined TWP as lighting director, June volunteered for four years before she officially became its administrator.

Artistically, TWP scored its greatest successes with a trilogy of documentary dramas on working-class history, including Ten Lost Years, an adaptation of Barry Broadfoot's oral history collection about the Great Depression in Canada, written with Jack Winter and musician Cedric Smith. The original production ran for three months.

Faulkner was sui generis. She called everyone "dahling," in the arch British way, but she was a bohemian at heart. On a tour of The Lost Years in Europe, she stunned the troupe on the train one night by asking, "does anyone know where I could find some dope?"

Her marriage to John foundered in 1968, but they never divorced and remained friends. Some months later she fell in love with Jamaican born actor Calvin Butler, at a time in Toronto when biracial relationships were rare.

Butler eventually moved into June's Earl Street house; at her death, they were still together. Their modest home functioned at times like a drop-in centre, always open to struggling or itinerant artists or political refugees. Several times, she went to court to vouch for refugees seeking residency status.

Singer Carole Pope, who rented a room there for four years, says she felt "very lucky to have lived in her house. She was like an avant-garde Auntie Mame."

Of course, being Canadian theatre, the vision was not always realized. One opening night, the lead actress in Grey Owl had a breakdown and could not appear. Luscombe insisted the company's stage manager, Zena (Sylvia) Tucker, take the part. reading from the script. She declined. "June quietly eased George out of the office," Tucker recalls. "When she came back, alone, she told us all to go home. There would be no [Grey Owl] opening, that night or any other."

In Nov., 1974, Faulkner was woken at 2 a.m. by a telephone call from police: TWP's theatre was on fire, only hours before a scheduled opening. The damage came in at $40,000. It was, she later said, the single worst thing that happened during her life in the theatre. But she got the building open again by New Year's Eve.

Both Luscombe and Faulkner were risk takers. They commissioned Rick Salutin's first play, Fanshen, "before I'd written anything for the stage," he says. "George and June were both ready to commit on faith and hope." A few years later, citing script changes made without his consent, he threatened to seek an injunction to block the opening that night of his Les Canadiens, "It looked like the whole thing might get wrecked," he says, "[but June] mediated and it got sorted out."

On more than one occasion, when developers' wrecking balls threatened the theatre, Faulkner found the money needed to avert disaster.

Toronto talent agent Pam Winter worked for June in the late 1980s. "I was a terrible executive assistant," Winter writes in a blog set up recently to record memories of Faulkner. "She ... forgave me when I screwed up her lunch meetings and mangled her correspondence ... About a year in, she said, 'I don't think you're going to be cut out for a life in theatre administration, do you?' I couldn't disagree. ... My short career in the theatre was over. 'Dahling,' she later drawled in her unmistakable Welsh lilt, 'don't pout. There are lots of things a girl with your skills can do. Let's just sit here until we figure it out.' And we did."

In the late 1970s, Luscombe took a sabbatical, and Faulkner programmed the season - an innovative lineup featuring works by the provocative Lindsay Kemp and Eve Merriam's cross-dressing revue, The Club. "The shows became like love-ins," Butler recalls, "In many ways, that was the start of the gay pride movement in Toronto. The room was packed every night and people lit sparklers."

In 1979, Faulkner left TWP to join Christopher Newton at the Shaw Festival. She loved the work, but found the long commute and the winters in Niagara-on-the-Lake very tough. And she missed the lively cultural scene of Toronto. As someone once said, if there was a play or modern dance production June hadn't seen, it must have closed in previews.

Less than three years later, she joined then artistic director Peter Moss at Young People's Theatre as general manager. Moss followed her through City Hall, squeezing several meetings into one visit, listening to her work the phones. They spent "endless hours discussing, scheming and planning how to make it work," he says. "She had an indomitable will to get things done and an impatience with delay."

Her combativeness was a mere facade. "With all my aggression," she once said, "I'm shy. Sometimes it's a struggle not to appear intimidated."

Seldom in the public eye, she used to discourage reporters by saying, 'Don't write about me, dahling, write about the theatre.' However, in one interview, she said that she had been most influenced by taking courses taught by Marshall McLuhan at Ryerson in the early 1960s.

Her most memorable experience, she said, was working with Anthony Burgess and Glenn Gould on a 1979 TV series about cities; she was production manager on two segments. She called it "an opportunity of a lifetime."

Leaving the theatre world, she acknowledged, would be "very difficult. I'm going to miss it, but it's time. I'm very tired. I've been the route so many times of trying to get more money, to put things on its feet. I go to meetings and hear echoes of what I did 20 years ago. I'm always tempted to say ' this won't work,' or 'do it that way.' I don't want to do that."

Away from the theatre, she frequented the cinema, collected pottery, listened to everything from Mozart and Bach to Hank Williams and Ray Charles, spent annual vacations at the Barbadian home of her old friend, Joan Chalmers, next door to retired movie star Claudette Colbert. Chalmers and Faulkner were also part of an early feminist group that included editor Doris Anderson and writer June Callwood.

But mostly she embraced the members of her theatre tribe. No one was excluded. When apprentice actress Maya Ardal had a son, Paul, in 1974, June brought a gift - a large cactus garden. "June plonked herself down," Ardal recalls, "and chatted away about the delight of children, as if she was my mum, not the terrifying money lady who stood guard at the gate of George Luscombe's creativity.

"That visit made me realize how much she loved the feeling that family and theatre can be one large community... It seems somehow so fitting, that June, the person who scraped every barrel and turned over every stone to find money to get the show on stage - how fitting that she would dispense with the nonsense of short-lived flowers, and give me the toughest thing that grows and that periodically bursts forth with a dramatic and glorious blossom."

When she retired at 67, they threw a party in her honour, and several local designers made hats - one assembled out of 760 pins, another with the word "Darling" spelled out in rhinestones; a third in the shape of a cocktail glass.

Asked how she'd like to be remembered, she said:. "Only that I've always been a great support to the artist," she said. "That really is enough."

A public memorial will be held Mar. 28, at the Young Centre.

June Faulkner was born, Feb. 5, 1926; she died Mar. 5, 2010. She leaves her partner, Calvin Butler and sons and daughters, Peter, Christopher, Maureen and Kitty, and their extended families.

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