Jean Burch Falls (1926-2020) worked with her husband Gregory Falls (1922-1997) in the origination of ACT — A Contemporary Theatre — in 1965. ACT produced notable performances in the historic Redding Building, also known as Queen Anne Hall & more recently Behnke Center and home to On the Boards, at 100 West Roy. Later ACT restored Eagles Auditorium, relocating to downtown Seattle in 1996. ACT introduced to Seattle works by such contemporary playwrights as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Tom Stoppard, and cultivated a community of actors and theatre workers.
Born and raised in New York City, Jean Burch graduated from Manhattan’s Brearley School in 1942 after attending boarding schools in Virginia and Lausanne, Switzerland. Despite her family’s objections, she studied drama in college, first at Bryn Mawr and then at Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. In 1943, she started to fly planes, hoping to join the WASPs – Women’s Auxiliary Service Patrol. However, the war in Europe ended before she reached the age when she could serve. After a first marriage and the birth of two sons, she began pre-med studies at the University of Vermont — while also directing and acting in community theatre. There she met and married Greg Falls, Director of the University of Vermont Drama Department, and her dramatic activities intensified.
In 1961, the University of Washington appointed Greg Falls as Executive Director of the School of Drama, and the Falls family – now including two daughters — moved to Seattle. Jean performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Green Lake Aqua Theatre. After a couple of years, Jean and Greg began to look for a space to open a contemporary summer theatre, to complement the two-year-old Seattle Repertory Theatre that staged classic plays during the winter. This led to the 1965 opening of ACT at its original Queen Anne location on West Roy. Jean noted that Jim Whittaker – the first American to summit Mt. Everest and an originator of REI – had used the Redding Building as a staging area.
In 1974, Jean began to write lyrics, often in collaboration with composer Rob Duisberg. Her work included lyrics for performances at ACT, Empty Space, and Issaquah’s Village Theatre. In 1999, she performed her final stage role in a production of Margaret Edson’s WIT at Seattle Repertory Theatre. She also traveled with the show to theatres in Houston, Phoenix, and Tucson.
A co-founder of Seattle’s Empty Space Theater, Jean sat on the boards of Allied Arts of Seattle and Town Hall. Her civic roles included activism in the late-1960s fight to save the Pike Place Market, culminating in her service on the first Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority/PDA. There she played an instrumental role in establishing the Pike Place Market Foundation, originated in 1981-82. In 1975-81, she served on the Seattle Center Advisory Commission.