Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Verna June Collis (1928–2003)

by Margaret Leask

June Collis, who has died aged 74, acted on the Australian stage for more than 30 years. Her strength as an actress was not so much as the leading lady, or the star, although she relished the theatrical moment and sharing her experience with younger players.

Rather, she was a versatile character actress who thrived on variety. She did not need to be beautiful or liked by the audience, but she did have to be truthful.

Calling on her eloquent vocal skills, she was always effective in quickly establishing her stage character and communicating this to the audience, for example, as Madame Arcarti in Blithe Spirit ("bringing a brash Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple directness to the role [she] steals the show with a consistently funny and loveable portrayal," Nation Review, 1973).

As a young actress she brought a pert and bright-eyed freshness to ingenue roles. Later in her career, much of her character was conveyed through her expressive eyes and mouth and through instinctive good timing.

As one critic said: "Her control and variations of playing were telling. She bit into the rotten apple deeply." During her illness over the past three years, perhaps because remaining alert and in control was deeply ingrained from her years on the stage, she continued to bite into the rotten apple deeply by refusing pain-killers and confronting death on her own terms.

Born in Sydney, she made her first appearance on the professional stage in The Beggar's Opera in 1947. At 19 she was contracted to the Garnet H. Carroll/Aztec Services organisation, to play juvenile and ingenue roles in touring productions.

Without formal training, she learnt on the road and in the company of the stars of the day including Ralph Richardson and Googie Withers. Her ability to sing saw her touring extensively in the 1950s, and by 1953 she was playing lead roles with the Melbourne Theatre Company, directed by John Sumner.

In February 1956, she married the English-born director Robert Quentin during the run of the musical The Boyfriend, in which she played the French maid Hortense. Quentin played a major role in the development of Australian theatre as director of the National Institute of Dramatic Art and the Old Tote Theatre Company. Quentin, always referred to by Collis as Sir, died in 1979.

Collis was a disciplined, passionate and versatile actress, equally at home with Coward's comedies, Chekhov, Moliere, realism and Samuel Beckett. The Sydney Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress was awarded to her twice. She also had a long association with the Q Theatre.

In 1980, in what she and many others considered a high point of her career, she played Winnie in Beckett's virtual monologue, Happy Days, directed by Philip Parsons. Of this performance the Herald critic Harry Kippax wrote: "Miss June Collis gives a brilliant performance, assembling Beckett's collage of scraps and remnants of high culture and low comedy, triviality and resonance, into patterns of communication with her wide, vivacious range of vocal nuance and facial expressiveness."

Just 18 months later Collis took on the responsibility of caring for her ailing mother. She left the stage and made only guest appearances on television series. A restless and creative spirit, she turned her energies to painting exquisitely detailed watercolours of flowers and plants, and to sketching her beloved cats and dogs.

As with her acting, she was an instinctive artist, who was awarded her Diploma of Painting from the National Art School at East Sydney Technical College in 1972. She started her studies there in 1961 but stage offers frequently prevailed in the ensuing years.

In 1971 she applied to teach art part-time at Kambala School for Girls, but came away from the interview with the job of drama teacher. She was much loved by the students and directed productions including The Crucible, which starred at least two actresses of the next generation, Penny Cook and Vanessa Downing.

Original publication

Citation details

Margaret Leask, 'Collis, Verna June (1928–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024