Nothing would stop Virginia Burke from excelling at her acting job — even if it entailed unconventional tasks such as building a dress made entirely of chicken bones.
Her close friend and collaborator, Wendy Knox, recalled that Burke was good at her job, dedicated and "crafty as hell."
"If we needed some ridiculous props, she would step up," the Frank Theatre director said.
The local actor, who headlined 15 Frank Theatre productions, among others at the Guthrie and Mixed Blood, died July 3 from complications of lung cancer. She was 51.
Known as "Gina" or "Virg" to her friends and family, Burke attended Robbinsdale High School and the University of Minnesota.
She made a big impression on the Twin Cities theater scene starting in the 1990s, throwing herself into her characters and stealing scenes left and right, Knox said.
Burke often inspired people around her, too — the chicken bone dress, created for a 1990s production directed by Knox, came about when Burke encouraged a team of performers to go scavenging through dumpsters and asking neighbors for leftovers. They also cooked a lot of chicken themselves.
Bleaching the bones might have seemed an unsophisticated task, but not for Burke. "She was not pretentious about being an artist at all," Knox said. "She was so hands-on."
Peter Moore, an actor, freelance director and friend of Burke's, said she was "remarkable" and had the kind of talent where "you couldn't take your eyes off her." He first saw Burke audition in 1990, and she "knocked him over" with how good she was. Moore began trying to cast her at every opportunity.
Burke starred in many local productions, such as "August: Osage County" and "Becky's New Car" at Park Square Theatre, and the Irish play "The Weir" with Actors Theatre of Minnesota.
"She was just so compelling," Moore said. "She had this energy and this fire. She didn't really care what you thought of her, and that gave her real power, and real strength."
"The word 'fierce' comes up with a lot of descriptions of her," Knox said. "She would fight for whatever she believed in. She was fiercely intelligent, passionate and kind."
She was also very straightforward, Moore said.
"Once, an actor at the Guthrie was being a real jerk, trying to get people fired," he recalled. "Finally, she told him off completely. The artistic director said to her, 'You're the only person who could've done that.' "
The outgoing yet private Burke was diagnosed with cancer in June, Moore said. She died a month later, having told Moore the news only a week before.
"She kept it secret," Moore said. "The whole thing was very fast."
Knox said she will miss her friend on many levels. "The day after she passed away, I was just thinking about how I'm gonna miss her," she said. "As a friend, but not doing a show with her was already hard. She was one of my main collaborators. We did great work together, and we pushed each other."
"There's never going to be a person quite like my mom again," said Sam McCullum, Burke's son. "Everything she did was with unmatched passion and love, both on the stage and at home.
"Her spirit carries on in the heart of everyone she's affected," he added.
Burke is survived by her parents, Richard and Virginia McFerran; sisters Lisa Birkholz and Shannon Burke; and two children, Sam McCallum and Ruby McCallum.
Services will be held Aug. 6. Details will be posted on the Frank Theatre Facebook page.