Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1998

Even when she was very young, Katherine Faulconer always played mothers and grandmothers. “My pitch was always low,” she says, “and my voice could be heard 50 miles away.” At 82, Faulconer’s grown into those grandma roles. With indomitable spirit and still-booming voice, she’s about to star in Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” (North Coast Repertory Theatre, November 14-December 27).

The play, which spans 25 years, is set in Atlanta during the Civil Rights revolution, and concerns a touchy, evolving relationship between a crotchety old Jewish widow and her patient, African American chauffeur.

Unlike Daisy, who came from a poor Southern Jewish background, Faulconer was born into a comfortable, middle-class Baptist life (she’s now a Quaker). She grew up in Bellingham, Washington, weaned on political activism.   Her mother’s mother was a staunch supporter of Susan B. Anthony. Later, her husband would be a Conscientious Objector in World War II and the Korean War.

“Education was the thing in my family,” she says. “So I made up my mind never to be a teacher. Never.   I wound up working and teaching at Grossmont College for 25 years.”

But she always wanted to be an actress.   She started as a tyke, and by 1931, she’d become the youngest member of the Bellingham Theater Guild.   At Washington State, where she majored in English and Speech (there was no theater major back then), she had a weekly radio program, introducing poetry to the masses:   Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, the Brownings “and of course, Shakespeare.”

As a young, starry-eyed woman of 22, she headed for New York, where she only landed “meager junk, summer stock, Off Broadway — before it was called that. I found it extremely difficult to sell myself. I still do.”

Meanwhile, to make ends meet in New York, she worked at bookstores, and that’s where she met her husband.   “I still remember the book he came in to buy: ‘The Making of Tomorrow,’ and it was the beginning of the making of “my” tomorrows.”   After their 1942 marriage, she stayed close to the ‘camps’ the C.O.s were forced to live in, and picked up some extra training at the Irvine School of the Theater, where she studied fencing with Cornel Wilde.

She and her husband returned to his native San Diego, but he couldn’t wait to take off for Latin America.   “His plan was to settle in Colombia, but I found out I was pregnant just before we were to leave.   We went anyway.   We took the old La Salle and headed south.   There were no bridges; we either had to ford rivers or pontoon across. We never got beyond Mexico; our fourth child was born in Tepic in 1951.   But we had to come back; we’d been through malaria, dysentery, snakes. I began having dreams.”

They moved to Descanso, where they lived for 14 years, “just above the poverty line.” At age 54, she came to another crossroads, and knew she had to break free.

“It took me five years to pick myself up after the divorce,” she confessed, but then she found the clerk-typist job at Grossmont, and from there, she eased back into theater, after a 30-year hiatus.   Her skill and acumen were quickly noticed, and she was asked to teach theater courses. She was over 60 when she played The Red Queen in Grossmont’s “Alice in Wonderland” (see photo), and almost 70 when she completed her Master’s degree in theater at SDSU. Faulconer’s no White Rabbit; she’s more like the Energizer Bunny.  

Over the past two decades, she’s made industrial films, appeared in the award-winning KPBS movie “The Lemon Grove Incident,” and performed at many San Diego theaters, including Starlight, Lamb’s, Octad One and the Old Globe. Last summer she spent six weeks in Scotland; she and fellow-actor Ron Choularton took their successful production of “Vigil” to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival.   (“We got four stars in The Scotsman,” she beams). She never says a word throughout the play, but it’s an intense piece, and they had a grueling performance schedule.

Now she’s ready to tackle a role that’s nearly nonstop talking. “I first did “Daisy” in 1989. What I think this character is really about is, despite all her denial, she’s a prejudiced person.   And it’s not just a question of black and white. After a long time with Hoke, it begins to percolate in her mind that love and kindness come from all sources. She finally drops all her preconceived notions when she’s in her 90s. I don’t blame her; it’s taken me to my 80s to get out of some of my old ideas…. She’s so damned independent. And I do understand that part of her character. ”

Clearly, Faulconer’s content with where she’s been and where she is. “Coming back to the theater at my stage of life, after all that’s happened to me, gives me an entirely different perspective. It’s not about egotistical ambition, trying to make a great career.   It’s a reflection of life. The one thing about it that dovetails so completely with my experience in Mexico is learning to live in the moment. You’re most effective onstage when you’re completely in the moment, not looking back, not thinking ahead. I’m trying to reach that in my life.”

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.