Jean Falls, a co-founder of A Contemporary Theatre and a strong-willed yet unassuming force in Seattle’s cultural and civic life for more than a half-century, died March 29. She was 94.
Mrs. Falls’ son, children’s books author Tor Seidler, said his mother had recently suffered two falls, followed by a stroke. She died under hospice care in her Queen Anne home.
In love with theater since childhood, Mrs. Falls and her husband, Gregory Falls (who died in 1997), established A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in 1965 and led it through its early successes and growth into an acclaimed regional theater. She performed in a number of leading roles (under her stage name Jean Burch) in ACT’s first stage productions and served as a key administrator.
In later years, Mrs. Falls served on ACT’s various boards and became an enduring symbol of its longstanding artistic mission. She typically did whatever the theater asked of her, even as her sight and hearing increasingly diminished.
Born Jean Morron Burch in New York City, Mrs. Falls was the youngest of three sisters. She displayed an early free-spirited and independent streak. Offered an ingénue role in a Broadway play starring Tallulah Bankhead, she lost the opportunity when her parents, who felt acting was improper for a young woman, said no. She studied drama anyway at Bryn Mawr College and the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
“She followed her star,” said Seidler.
Jean and Gregory Falls moved to Seattle shortly before the 1962 World’s Fair underscored the city’s potential as a cultural center. The two met at the University of Vermont, where Mr. Falls was director of the drama department, and Mrs. Falls was studying premedicine while also pursuing theater. She appeared in major roles in the Champlain Shakespeare Festival, which Mr. Falls founded. They married in 1954.
When Mr. Falls was named director of the University of Washington’s drama department, the couple moved to Seattle with their two daughters and Mrs. Falls’ two sons from a previous marriage.
The creation of Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1963 as a winter home for classic works inspired the Falls to take an opposite approach: opening a theater that staged such contemporary plays as Edward Albee’s “Tiny Alice” and James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” during summers.
In 1974, Mrs. Falls began pursuing another ambition as a lyricist. Collaborating with composers, she wrote a musical revue, “Seattle Eclectic”; “Winter Weeds,” a short opera; and an adaptation of “Heidi” that had several regional runs. She returned to drama in 1999 in a Seattle Rep production of Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” which toured other cities.
Mrs. Falls was a major driver in other areas of Seattle life. In the late 1960s, she helped lead a charge to save Pike Place Market from a commercial development project. She served on the first Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, and later played a key role in establishing the Pike Place Market Foundation. Despite her critical role in such activism, she would quietly dismiss her importance to such causes.
Mrs. Falls was a co-founder of Seattle’s now-defunct Empty Space Theatre, a member of the Seattle Center Advisory Commission, and sat on the boards of Allied Arts and Town Hall.
In addition to her son Seidler, Mrs. Falls is survived by three other children: John Seidler, Zan Collier and Jeannie Falls; five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.