A Tribute to Carol Burns

Last night there was a gathering at the Playhouse Theatre to honour the memory of a great member of the artistic community. I was one of many who spoke of Carol’s life in the theatre, and of our friendship which began as young actors in the founding years of Queensland Theatre Company.

This is what I said.

“Carol Burns – was one of the most uncompromising, truly alive human beings I have known. To have known her is to have experienced a force of blazing energy that came from deep inside her – on stage and in person. At times, she seemed almost to glow. This is what I want to remember.

I last spoke with Carol in August when she came to the launch of QTC’s Season 2016 and congratulated me on being cast in QUARTET. I felt the warmth of her feeling as we embraced. She was terribly ill and had, in the months since I had last seen her, become shockingly frail in body, but her mind and passion for the work, her love of fellow artists, and the Company in which we both began work as actors, burned as strongly as ever.

As young actors at QTC we played dramatic roles, comedies, farces, big roles, little roles, stuff that stretched us way beyond our limits. Daily classes, rehearsing the next show and playing the current one at night – it was a non-stop, total immersion in the business of being an actor. We became artists together.

Carol and I were cast in a production of OLD TIMES, Harold Pinter’s then new three-hander. It was directed under the gimlet eye of Alan Edwards and it was OLD TIMES that bonded us then and in a way that continued for years afterwards.  The third member of our cast was Douglas Hedge.

Old Times: Douglas Hedge, Carol Burns, Kate Wilson. Image: I & G Pierce
Old Times: Douglas Hedge, Carol Burns, Kate Wilson. Image: I & G Pierce

I called Doug a few weeks ago. I had pretty much decided what I wanted to say tonight and I knew somehow that he would agree, but I wanted to check. We hadn’t spoken for years but, before I had a chance to ask he said, ’Tell them about the seagull.’ And so, I will.

Carol, Doug and I got on well; we loved working together, and really enjoyed one another’s company. At the time, I was the only one with a car – a Mini – and after the last show of the week – Saturday night –  the three of us would pile into Min and head for the Sunshine Coast.

We’d chug up the Bruce Highway and stop just before Coolum. We’d park off road and head for the beach on foot. Our midnight, post-show ritual included drinking wine and swimming naked under the stars – this is pre-JAWS remember – and, in any case, we thought we were immortal, invincible. It would be two days and two nights of coastal bliss – we’d build a campfire, and sleep in the dunes – Carol was the very efficient organiser of supplies: sleeping bags, torches, food. During the day, we’d amble for miles along those glorious beaches, solving the world and the theatre’s problems, planning the future. We swam, sun baked, and walked through the wallum scrub and the wild flowers that seemed, miraculously, to stretch for acres. We were luxuriating in the beauty and the freedom of it all. And there were seagulls, seagulls everywhere. It was our Seagull beach. These weekends were our retreat and our joy.

Carol also introduced us to some new stuff just on the market – UV Lotion – you could slap it on and not burn, she told us. She was right, but we didn’t read the small print on the bottle – the bit that says you have to keep reapplying it every couple of hours. What resulted was a most unfetching boiled lobster look at the following Tuesday evening’s performance and for a few nights afterwards – no amount of pancake makeup could restore the pasty English complexions we should have had. It goes without saying, of course, that we raised the considerable ire of Mr Edwards who berated us soundly and deservedly for our – wait for it, – ‘total lack of professionalism.’ Delivered by Alan this was a stinging, awful, shameful blow and one that I know none of us ever forgot. The other lesson: always read the small print on labels.

Around that time we appropriated a stuffed seagull prop and it accompanied us to the coast each weekend. It became our mascot and for every performance of OLD TIMES and others to follow when we performed – our seagull would sit in the wings watching us, or appear (surreptitiously) onstage. I know – childish pranks, right? Good old times. If Alan knew, he didn’t let on.

A year or so afterwards, Carol departed the company, and the seagull flew south with Doug when he left. Team Seagull never reformed; I never acted with Carol again – my great regret. Doug told me that, for years afterwards, he would put the by-now tattered gull in the wings when he performed but that it disappeared one night when a disgruntled Stage Manager finally had enough of the seagull shenanigans.

I grieve for your passing, dear Carol but I also remember your inner glow and feel your warmth, see your huge smile, hear your throaty laugh. You were a wonderful colleague, a brave and beautiful woman, a sublime artist. I admire and respect you and will do so always.

Fly free … “

Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.