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."