Colin Browne / On Tom Cone

Colin’s introduction at the Mayor’s Arts Award ceremony at the VAG, March 8, 2012.

The following introduction was presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery on the evening of Thursday March 8th, 2012. Family, friends and colleagues had gathered to witness the presentation of the inaugural Mayor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Culture to Tom Cone. City Councillor Andrea Reimer graciously presented the award along with a Proclamation declaring that March 25th—Tom’s birthday—would be Tom Cone Day in Vancouver. When Tom went up to accept the award, he received a standing ovation that lasted many minutes. His acceptance speech, a generous account of how he came to be the man he is, beginning with his childhood in Miami where, at the age of eight, he met Tennessee Williams, was as profound a narrative of a passionate and engaged life as anyone is ever likely to hear.


Tom Cone is a Vancouver legend: playwright, librettist, lecturer, teacher, impresario, curator, philanthropist, catalyst, husband, father and friend.

He’s a major nurturing force behind the creation and exhibition of new works of theatre, visual art, experimental music, music drama, literature and the avant-garde in our city and across the country. His artistry as a writer, his remarkable initiatives and his collaborations have been responsible for dozens of new works being commissioned and taking their place in Vancouver’s rich artistic firmament—and, crucially, unforgettably—in our hearts and minds.

As a playwright, a librettist, a teacher and a curator/artistic animator, Tom is always ahead of the curve. Early on, in his days as a poet—Tom came to Vancouver for the poetry—he internalized Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “Make it new!” When he spots an opportunity, a young artist who should be championed, or a need that’s not being addressed, he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. He understands that artists and audiences are hungry for each other, and that you just have to find a way to get them together.

Kathleen [Bartels] has already mentioned his brilliant concept of a patron circle for visual art, in this case called “LOCATION: a roving collective for the acquisition of visual art for permanent collections.” This initiative was borrowed from an earlier project called ACOUSTIC PANEL, which also involved a patron circle of individuals from different realms, assembled by Tom to support the commissioning of new works by contemporary composers for the Vancouver new music ensemble, Standing Wave. This in turn may have been modeled on a project called THE NEWS that Tom devised when he was on the board of the Playwright’s Theatre Centre. He had the idea of inviting donors to give $100 each for the purpose of commissioning short plays by emerging playwrights. The shows were presented at the annual New Play Festival; altogether, the project resulted in the production of at least six new plays.

Tom and his collaborators—most significantly his wonderful wife and co-producing partner Karen Matthews—have for years been coming up with new ideas and commissioning new works from Vancouver’s adventurous composers and writers. How I love and depend on those phone calls in the middle of the night that begin, “Karen Matthews and I have decided to…,” and you know that another marvellous, necessary scheme has been hatched. Many of the results of these commissions have been produced in their home on Ontario Street, with the musicians’ fees paid through a collection at the door. Tom insists that the artists get paid. The projects are consultative and collaborative; he works tirelessly within community to strengthen community and to encourage dialogue about the arts and public life in our city.

The occasional living room concerts evolved in 2004 into the now legendary SONG ROOM series. After trying to encourage existing organizations to bring writers, composers, singers and musicians together to create a repertoire of contemporary songs, Tom and Karen, along with David Pay, decided to program a series themselves—at home. If you haven’t been to one of these events, imagine well over a hundred people crammed into the kitchen, dining room, living room and sitting on the floor in wrapt attention while songs that have never been heard before are performed on a moonlit night for the very first time.

Tom is, in fact, the founder and co-founder of a number of other innovative, wildly successful collaborative artist-oriented projects including:

CABINET: Interdisciplinary Collaborations (2005 – ): an experimental arts collective established to produce new work in Vancouver, with Marie Lopez, Karen Love and David Pay;

THE OPERA PROJECT (2011 – ): ten-minute operas commissioned from Vancouver writers and composers and performed by Vancouver singers and musicians, with Karen Matthews;

HOME FRONT (2011 – ): a new series featuring B.C. poets, with Karen Matthews and Jenny Penberthy.

And I know that Tom has been developing a new project with Bob Baker of the Canadian Music Centre.

Tom Cone began his playwriting career in Vancouver with a CBC radio production of his play There in 1972. In 1973, Playwrights’ Theatre Centre successfully produced The Organizer, and this was followed by a string of plays that put Tom and Vancouver on the theatrical map: Cubistique (1974), Herringbone (1975), Whisper To Mendelsohn (1975), The Imaginary Invalid (1975), Beautiful Tigers (1976), Shotglass (1977), 1792 (1978) and The Writer’s Show (1978). Herringbone went on a national tour and was performed in Montréal at the 1976 Olympics.

He became playwright-in-residence at Stratford where he premiered a new work, Stargazing (1978), and his adaptation of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters (1980), which has been continuously produced since 1980. He moved to New York and in 1981 adapted Herringbone into a musical with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. It premiered in Chicago, and went on to New York, London, Philadelphia, Edinburgh, Vancouver, Hartford (starring Joel Grey) and cities throughout North America.

In 2009 and 2010, Herringbone – The Musical was successfully and passionately revived in a celebrated new production starring Tony Award winner B.D. Wong and directed by Tony Award winner Roger Rees. In the L.A. Times in August, 2009, Rees declared that “the play is eccentric, but it’s angry and poetic too. In Tom Cone’s work nothing is easy. I like working with authors who are a bit pesky. Mostly, theatre becomes blander and blander as everyone wants the same thing they saw before. The good plays are the ones that don’t allow you to do that.”

In 1992, Tom’s celebrated adaptation of Molière’s The Miser premiered at the Vancouver Playhouse; it subsequently aired on CBC’s Arts National and opened the restored Monument Theatre in Montréal for the National Theatre School. Recent plays include True Mummy (1997), Love at Last Sight, Donald and Lenore, produced by Felix Culpa Theatre and Chutzpah Festival in Vancouver in March 2010, and The Victory Lap (Belfast, 2011).

During the 1990s, Tom turned to opera. He wrote the libretto for The Architect (1994) with composer David MacIntyre, as a commission for Vancouver Opera. The Gang, with music by Peter Hannan, premiered in Vancouver in June 1997, produced by Vancouver New Music. In January 1999, The Gang travelled to the duMaurier Theatre in Toronto and was broadcast nationally on CBC’s Two New Hours. In 2000, Game Misconduct, a collaboration between Tom and the composer Leslie Uyeda, premiered at Festival Vancouver. Tom’s most recent opera, Love Thy Neighbour, with music by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence Edward Top, was first performed as part of The Opera Project in May 2011. It was reprised right here in this building last fall during the Surrealist exhibition, and most recently in January (2012) as part of the VSO’s Mahler Festival. Love Thy Neighbour will be performed again in Vancouver on May 24th on the opening night of the annual general meeting of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Discussions are underway to perform the opera internationally.

You’ll be pleased to know that Tom has been collaborating with Edward on a new project entitled Songs of an Egyptian Princess. The texts are taken from Tom’s play True Mummy and will be performed at the Orpheum Annex on the 21st of April, with Bethany Domingus and the Symphony’s Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey.

All his life, Tom has been a dedicated teacher. Most recently, with Jeremy Todd, he taught “Collaboration and Constructivism” at Emily Carr in the fall of 2007. The following year he was Writer-in-Residence at Capilano University, where he created the celebrated Five-Minute Play Project, a collaboration between the Creative Writing and Theatre departments; the course has been offered every spring term since then.

He has been the recipient of awards from the Canada Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Drama League Award in New York. In 2001, he contributed to the publication Facing History: Portraits from Vancouver for Presentation House Gallery. His publishers include Arsenal Pulp Press, New Play Centre/Fineglow, Fifth House Publishing, Samuel French, Broadway Plays, Scirocco, Talonbooks, Playwrights Canada, Applause Books and Anvil Press.

I wrote to Bryan Newson the other day and told him how proud I was–-and am—that our city is recognizing Tom’s achievements. For this we owe a huge debt of thanks to everyone at the city, from the Mayor on down, who helped to make this possible. Thank you so much.

And who would not want to live in the same city as Tom Cone? Who would not want to take every opportunity to be in his company—to be cherished by him, and his family, and to cherish them in return—Ruby, Karen and Tom? To take part in those majestic conversations that range across the mind and across the world. Who else cares as much for the tiny sparrow as the self-lacerating nation? Who else has such a history and yet insists on the present, on what is impossibly possible, on what is so bristlingly alive and new that, like lightning, it has the blazing, exhilarating ability to illuminate our fallen condition, to return each one of us to ourselves, naked as the infant we have never been able to outrun?

Tom and I often speak about William Carlos Williams. In that moving poem from his old age, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” I find lines that always make me think of Tom. They’re familiar, and bear repeating, and they share with Tom an unwavering belief in the potency and necessity of art—in this case poetry. Williams is speaking to his wife, Floss:

“My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

Tom’s enthusiasm and his love have embraced all of us as companions. He has opened his heart to his city, and his city would now like to acknowledge the gift he has given so generously and so freely. A few more words from Williams about music, which along with water is the primary element of life, this time the quatrain at the end of “Desert Music”:

“And I could not help thinking
of the wonders of the brain that
hears that music and of our
skill sometimes to record it.”

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