Playwright, librettist, and avid arts advocate Tom Cone dies at 65

Just a few weeks after receiving the Mayor's Arts Award for lifetime Achievement and having March 25 declared in his honour, Tom Cone has passed away from cancer.

The playwright, librettist, and tireless supporter of art in every medium died at 65 on April 5.

Cone was born in Miami, growing up in what he once described to the Straight as "a very southern, Jewish environment." He dabbled in amateur acting and got into poetry in a big way.

Cone decided to head north because of the draft, but chose Vancouver, he once said, because it was home to poets like Robin Blaser and Warren Tallman.

His first job was editing the Georgia Straight's literary supplement. Through his work, he got to hang out with his beloved poets. He eventually made his way back into theatre during its heady, hothouse days of the 1970s.

His scripts included 1975's Herringbone and 1978's Stargazing. Later in his career, he moved into opera: in 1994, he created The Architect with composer David MacIntyre for the Vancouver Opera, and in 2000, penned the hockey-themed Game Misconduct with composer Leslie Uyeda for Festival Vancouver.

It was Herringbone, though, that Cone was best known for, an absurdist play that was regularly reincarnated for more than two decades, including a tour, a Montreal Olympics appearance, and a TV special. He was 28 when it debuted at the New Play Centre; he reportedly wrote the grotesque story of love, possession, and dwarfism in one week. "It was just ridiculous," Cone told the Straight later. "I'd had a second act in mind all along, which I finally added, and in 1978 the full-length version was produced in Lennoxville, then at the Bathhouse Theatre in Seattle. Finally, it was optioned by Ken Marsolais and Coleen Dewhurst in New York, and I moved there in 1981." There, and in Chicago, Herringbone became a hit starring Cone's idol, David Rounds. But Rounds died of cancer before the play could move to a larger theatre.

By 1987, Cone and wife Karen Matthews were moving back to Vancouver. Two years later, they had their child, Ruby Cone.

In 1991, when the reworked Herringbone, the Musical played here on the Vancouver Playhouse stage, starring Morris Panych, the Straight called it an "intellectual tour de force": "For anybody who ever needed a theatre fix, Herringbone, the Musical is the pure stuff."

Cone was also a huge fan of new music, helping to establish the Song Room series of salon concerts with his wife, costume designer Matthews, and the Opera Project, which commissions 10-minute operas. In a vivid illustration of his innovative arts thinking, he also organized a project in which 40 friends would contribute $100 each to commission a new work for the Standing Wave ensemble. At the time he told the Straight: "What I want is that other audiences may be sitting there going, 'I got 10 firends and you got 10 friends.' I hope it inspires them to feel they're not impotent in their philanthropy. I think we've got to inspire the middle class that can't afford the $4,000 donations."

There was almost no art form untouched by Cone in the city. He helped launch the B.C. poets series Home Front and the experimental arts collective Cabinet. In 2008, the Straight wrote a story about how Cone and Matthews eagerly hosted a public artwork called Park, a covered-car-shaped sculpture by Marko Simcic, right out front of their East Side house. Cone enthused at the time: "The whole street has a different social sensibility, and we thought it would be wonderful to have Park on the street," adding that passersby would photograph it and touch it. "They first want to know what it is and why it's there....The people on Ontario Street, the ones that I've chatted with, feel kind of honoured that it's there."

"He was an extraordinary man in so many ways and his passing will be a terrible loss for the Vancouver community," stated his friend and Vancouver Art Gallery manager of curatorial affairs Karen Love. "We have been so enriched by his generous, creative initiatives over the past decades that his passionate example will most certainly inspire and generate many new works over the years and years to come."

"Tom's influence has inspired innumerable local and national artists in their creation and exhibition of new works of theatre, visual art, experimental music, and literature," Mayor Gregor Robertson said at the time of his award. "He has worked tirelessly to lead and strengthen Vancouver's arts and cultural community, and to encourage dialogue about the arts and public life."

Comments (11) Add New Comment
Tony K
Thanks man, you are an inspiration.
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Jay Brazeau
A brilliant mind. A true friend of the Vancouver Cultural Mecca. Always supportive and kind. Both Karen and Tom were part of what I call the "true" Vancouver Community. Tom was a one in a million kinds guy. He shall forever be in our hearts. My condolences to Karen and their lovely daughter. Jay Brazeau and family.
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Bonnie Gibson
Tom, you will be missed! Thanks for all the encouragement, provocative conversations and great laughs.
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Jenifer Papararo
He was a true advocate for the arts. I will personally miss him and his generous manner. I fear the loss of his strong and assured voice will be felt to the detriment by the arts community in Vancouver.
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Jordan S
Tom you are an inspiration for running windsprints back and forth between arts ramparts like few others did. While it is difficult to imagine that you are gone, your wayward enthusiasm will live on in brains ignited by the seemingly endless art project plans hatched over late afternoon espressos, theatre intermissions and long closed-out exhibit launches.
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David Diamond
...just heard this sad news. As others have said Tom was a creative force and inspiration. He nurtured my transition from actor to writer/director/producer in the late '70's/early '80's. Tom's generosity of spirit was boundless. A most vivid memory - being introduced to the pleasure of Vermouth and ice on a hot summer day.....cheers, Tom and thanks for everything.
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Chris Cornish
Tom was a force like none other I've met. His enthusiasm, passion, and knowledge of the arts was formidable. His generosity with his time and his friendship is something I will remember always. I am so sorry to hear of his passing. I am a better person for knowing him.
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Syd Ralph
Thoughts from me and mine...blessings to those left behind and to the man himself.....many tears....xxxx
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Laura Crema
So sad to hear of the passing of such a wonderful human being with so much enthusiasm, love and passion for the arts and its people. Much love to karen and Ruby. The city will miss his presence greatly.
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leslie mildiner
I' ve only just heard of Tom's passing. A great loss of a very sweet man and a great intellect. I remember how supportive he was of my own work when I first arrived in Vancouver in the early 80's. My heart goes out to Karen and their daughter Ruby.
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Carla Granat
I was crushed today to hear of Tom's death, when I Googled him to get back into contact with him. I produced his "Cubistique" and "Herringbone" as an Equity showcase, in New York, back in the '70s, with Jace Van der Veen, and Sheldon Rosen directing. He was one of the most intellectually exciting people I've ever met. Another connection we had is that we both grew up in Miami Beach, a place that used to elicit the question from tourists, "No one is actually FROM here, are they?" We had a lot of shared history in that strange place. I'm so sorry I'm too late to have reconnected after almost 30 years. I'm so sad, but greatly enriched for having known and loved him.
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