Theatre professor Mary Kerr wins prestigious national award

While the prestigious Molson Prize may not ring any immediate bells, a quick glance through the list of previous winners reveals a who’s-who of Canadian culture: Margaret Atwood, Glenn Gould, Richard Wagamese, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Bill Reid, Mary Pratt, Jack Shadbolt, MG Vassanji, Margaret Laurence, Denys Arcand, Arthur Erickson . . . with over 100 luminaries representing Canada’s intellectual and cultural heritage, it’s like the ultimate CBC guest list.

One category missing from this list of prestigious artists, writers, composers, architects, choreographers and academics, however, is theatrical designers.

But that has now changed forever, as theatre professor and legendary production designer Mary Kerr becomes the first designer to be named a Molson Prize Laureate in the prize’s 56-year history.

Mary Kerr in her office at UVic’s Department of Theatre, surrounded by her various designs, 2016 (UVic Photo Services)

A gifted artist and inspiring mentor

From the iconic likes of Expo 67, Expo 86 and the 1994 Commonwealth Games to nearly every professional stage in the country, Mary Kerr’s visionary theatrical designs have transformed Canadian culture over the past five decades.

“We are so fortunate to have Mary’s talents here at the University of Victoria,” says Vice-President Academic and Provost Valerie Kuehne. “Not only is she an exceptionally gifted artist, she’s also an inspired teacher and mentor. Her work elevates UVic’s position as a national leader in fine arts and brings positive attention to the cultural strengths of Canadian art and production design on the global stage.”

The Molson Prize, which honours contributions to Canada’s cultural and intellectual heritage, is only the latest honour for the theatre professor. Kerr is also a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Royal Society of Canada and has represented Canada at numerous international theatrical design competitions over the past 30 years.

“This award is an important way for other designers to gain heart: they can see their work is being received equal to painting or sculpture,” says Kerr. “To me, good theatre is a vision quest: it can change your life.”

Two prizes of $50,000 are awarded each year, one in the arts and the other in the social sciences or humanities. This is the third Molson Prize for UVic and its first in the Faculty of Fine Arts. John Borrows (Law) received a Molson Prize last year and Angus McLaren (History) received the university’s first in 2008. Funded from a $1-million endowment by the Molson Family Foundation, the Molson Prizes are administered by the Canada Council for the Arts in conjunction with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

People worldwide witnessed the pagentry of Mary Kerr’s designs during the televised closing of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria (Image provided courtesy of Mary Kerr)

A career as diverse as Canadian culture

Given her background in dance and sculpture, and her celebrated career as a production designer in Canadian and international theatre, dance, opera, feature film, television, exhibition and special events design, Kerr’s oeuvre is as diverse as Canadian culture itself.

“If we’re lucky, we get the culture we deserve to create in—and I was lucky,” says Kerr, looking back over her 50-year career. “It was exploding, it was exploring, it was a time to break the rules and be authentic.”

From designing the internationally televised opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria to creating sets for The Tommy Hunter Show, from working on opera stages around the world to working with children’s entertainers Sharon, Lois and Bram, Kerr has forged her own path through hundreds of projects and numerous awards and nominations.

“If I’m happy with what I’ve done, I move on,” she says philosophically. “While it is work, I don’t just think of it as craft or technique. Hopefully, each show I do—each challenge I’m given, each puzzle I solve—is a movement of growth and creation.”

Not that her work has been limited to Canada: iconic ballet star Rudolf Nureyev invited Kerr to design productions at the Paris Opera Ballet, where he was artistic director—the first Canadian to receive such an honour—and her one-woman musical about Marc Chagall’s wife, Bella—Bella, the Colour of Love (which she co-wrote)—was commissioned and produced for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia, before touring to New York, Poland and Toronto.

Her production designs have been described as “kinetic sculpture on stage” and are characterized by experimentation with architectural concepts, scale, materials, colours and often satiric cultural commentary on the human condition.

“Einstein said, ‘creativity is intelligence having fun’—that captures my life practice,” says Kerr. “I’m not that interested in realism; I’m interested in exploration, illusion, what’s going on in someone’s mind . . . that’s what I love about theatre, the ability to bring some kind of transformation and healing to the audience.”

Case in point? Her visionary designs for the 2007 National Arts Centre production of Copper Thunderbird, based on the life and works of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, which were later the focus of an exhibit at UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery. This groundbreaking exhibit paired Kerr’s sketches, models, costumes, process photographs and nationally broadcast video of the production alongside Morrisseau’s own paintings.

“In some ways, my work was a bridge between Canadian art and Canadian theatre, because there weren’t a lot of theatre designers who came from an art background in the 1970s . . . stylized theatre wasn’t being done that much when I started. But I didn’t know what I should or shouldn’t do: I just did. In retrospect, I didn’t realize how experimental or unusual my work was at the time.”

Mary Kerr’s production designs for the 2007 play Copper Thunderbird helped bring the life and work of Anishinaabe artist Norville Morisseau to life at the National Arts Centre, and were the focus of a 2008 exhibit at UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery (National Arts Centre)

Mentoring the next generation

Kerr’s work has been the subject of a documentary film (Mary Kerr: the Creative Process) and is housed in many collections including The Mary Kerr Collection at the Metro Toronto Library and the Paris Opera Archival Museum. She was also recently chosen by her peers to have her work shown as “Canada’s Design Legend” at the 2019 Prague Quadrennial International Design Competition. But it hasn’t always been easy.

“Women primarily designed costumes—not sets—when I started out,” she says. “I was often scorned by the professional male designers who felt women were not technical enough to design sets. The director was considered the ‘conceiver’ behind the show, but I work as an equal creator: a visual dramaturge.”

And while opportunities for women have improved, Kerr still feels called to raise awareness in the next generation of designers, and to remind women today what they can achieve in the field. That’s part of what she has brought to her students in UVic’s theatre department since 1998, where she teaches courses in the sociology and semiotics of contemporary and historical fashion, costume and stage architecture, theatrical aesthetics and “Ways of Seeing”.

At the same time, Kerr also guides students through the process of conceiving and designing costumes and sets for productions at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre, and regularly mentors students after graduation to successful design careers in Canada and around the world.

As noted in the Molson Prize nomination letter, international opera designer Michael Levine says that Kerr “has always been a leading light in the field of set and costume design, both in Canada and abroad. Her work is bold and brave and thrilling to watch. She has inspired many designers to follow her path.”

As production designer for the 2012 UVic Phoenix Theatre production of Euridyce, Kerr’s artistic vision encompassed every aspect of the stage. (Photo: David Lowes)

Ways of seeing

It should perhaps be no surprise that two previous recipients of the Molson Prize—visionary thinkers Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye—were two of Kerr’s own mentors as a student.

“I based my ‘Ways of Seeing’ UVic class on McLuhan’s method,” says Kerr. “We’d all be sitting around in a circle and he’d just talk—we’d rarely say anything—and his mind bounced around like a wonderful hummingbird, or maybe a big eagle. It totally fascinated me that learning wasn’t something you found in a book but something you put together in your mind . . . it was a very different way of approaching it. Frye, he was more of an academic, but he was also a mystic.”

Given that she’s still guided by the influence of her own mentors, what advice does she offer her own students? “Learn the rules and then break them. Be fearless and authentic in your art.  Do not copy. Be an original. Be a compassionate and curious human first, an artist second and only then perhaps a production designer.”

Over 22 million people attended Vancouver’s Expo 86 and were thrilled by the colourul spectacle of the Canadian Pavilion’s First Theatre, with production design by Mary Kerr (Image provided courtesy of Mary Kerr)

Theatre in a time of crisis

Finally, with international productions at a halt because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Kerr is currently working on a collection of essays and stories about her life and experiences as a designer—which, combined with the Molson Prize, has offered the opportunity for reflection.

“In Buddhism, they talk about the Kalachakra wheel—when the wheel of the world turns, things change—and some say that’s what’s going on right now. Will theatre come back the way it was? I don’t think so—and I don’t think it should,” she reflects.

“I keep wondering what McLuhan, who could see to the edge of the earth, would be saying or doing in this precarious time. He called artists the ‘early warning systems of a culture’ . . . so how can we warn and help today?”

Whatever the future holds for theatrical presentations, it’s a safe bet Mary Kerr will be there on the edge herself, envisioning a dynamic and colourful design.

Playful and bright, Kerr’s production design was an ideal match for the fairy tale classic, The Wind In The Willows, staged at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre in 2007. (Photo: Tim Matheson)

Theatre researcher named top SSHRC Storyteller

Department of Theatre PhD candidate Lara Aysal has been named one of the top 25 “Storytellers” in an annual competition announced on May 5 by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. SSHRC’s 2020 Storytellers competition celebrates the best in research communication by post-secondary students.

Applied Theatre PhD candidate Lara Aysal

Aysal is one of two UVic researchers named as a finalist, alongside Erynne Gilpin of UVic’s Indigenous Governance program. Each receives $3,000 and the opportunity to compete in the Storytellers Showcase in 2021.

The Storytellers challenge strives to show Canadians—in up to three minutes or 300 words—how social sciences and humanities research is affecting our lives, our world and our future for the better. The 2020 Top 25 Storytellers represent 19 postsecondary institutions across Canada. Their research stories include topics that are a priority for Canadians and have wide-reaching implications: climate change, the situation for refugees, the stigma of mental illness and Indigenous communities.

“This year’s 25 Storytellers competition finalists show exceptional creativity in communicating the relevance of social sciences and humanities research to the daily lives of Canadians,” says SSHRC President Ted Hewitt. “I commend each of them for their outstanding talent and ability to convey concisely and with great impact, why such research matters. Congratulations to the finalists!”

Community collaboration supports Hul’q’umi’num’ language and culture

Applied Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta and her students are collaborating with the Hul’q’umi’num’ Language and Culture Society to use tools from theatre to reclaim an endangered Coast Salish language. For the last four summers, the group has met to improvise theatre games to improve fluency and to develop plays performed for the Hul’q’umi’num’ community.

“Working together on plays reinforces traditional values, such as building consensus, overcoming fear, and sharing knowledge with others,” says interdisciplinary PhD student, actor and voice coach, Thomas Jones, Kweyulutstun (theatre and linguistics). “Performing the stories brings out messages and meanings that are not understood when reading from a page.”

Last summer’s performance, “hw’i’ttsus lhqel’ts’Jealous Moon”, was directed by Applied Theatre PhD candidate Lara Aysal. A video documenting the project, Indigenous Performance and Language Revitalization, produced by One Island Media, was entered into the SSHRC Storytellers competition (below).

“Stories have been the guiding principle to take language learning out of the conventional classroom environment and into a theatrical space where it can be practiced in an everyday life setting,” says Aysal, who has worked on applied theatre projects around the world.


Voices of Indigenous women form narrative of self-determination

Erynne Gilpin is a mixed Cree-Metis, Filipina and Celtic educator, researcher. She is also a PhD graduate of UVic’s Indigenous Governance program. Her winning submission was based on her doctoral thesis—Land as Body: Indigenous Womxn’s Leadership, Land-based Wellness and Embodied Governance.

Erynne Gilpin (Photo: Kl. Peruzzo,

Guiding conversations with 17 Indigenous women, 21-to-60 years of age from 10 different nations, Gilpin explored definitions of leadership in their everyday lives, their wellness, community well-being and their relationships with land and water.

Gilpin explains, “my research defines wellness within a Cree-Metis framework. These concepts inform what I define as an embodied governance framework of self-determination.” Determined to interrupt the Indigenous story as one of constant crisis, Gilpin proposes new thinking, “which begins with the body as a site of regeneration, resurgence and renewal.”

Gilpin is an Indigenous Learning Specialist with UVic’s learning and teaching unit, and is an instructor with the Indigenous Studies program.

The 2020 Storytellers finalists are invited to participate in the Storytellers Showcase at the 2021 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which will take place in May 2021 at the University of Alberta. Given the exceptional circumstances caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the nature of the Storytellers competition, where the finalists must learn to effectively communicate their research in front of a live audience, SSHRC decided to postpone the Storytellers Showcase that was to have taken place at the 2020 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Western University in London, Ontario, which was cancelled.

The Final Five winners chosen at that event will be featured at SSHRC’s Impact Awards ceremony, to be held in fall 2021. See SSHRC’s Storytellers website for more details.

This story originally appeared on the UVic News page

Star Wars performance supports COVID-19 student fund

Department of Theatre alum Charles Ross will livestream his popular interstellar romp The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy at 5pm Monday, May 4, to help support an emergency fund for students experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Coordinated through The Farquhar at UVic, this is a special opportunity to watch the Victoria actor and active Theatre alum condense 12 hours of cinema into a 75-minute re-enactment of the plots of three Star Wars films (Star Wars IV, V and VI) while raising money to support students.

Click here for the livestream link to this free performance.

UVic theatre alumnus Charles Ross will livestream his popular interstellar romp through Star Wars on May 4 to help support an emergency bursary fund for students affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Image: Courtesy of Charles Ross.

The UVic COVID-19 Emergency Bursary was established in April to help domestic and international students, at the graduate and undergraduate level, who are in financial need as result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Money raised will go toward students who have lost their jobs, face housing issues or have trouble paying for food, tuition or the technology needed for online or remote learning. The fund also supports mental health services, child care and transportation costs for students affected by the pandemic.

The emergency fund was established with $200,000 from the university and $140,000 from the BC government. Other contributions include $67,000 from the UVic Students’ Society, $50,000 from the UVic Alumni Association and $98,000 in individual donations from hundreds of alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the university.

So far, more than 2,000 students have applied to the emergency bursary, and UVic anticipates the demand will exceed $1 million. Fundraising is continuing and all gifts are welcome. Viewers are asked to donate to the UVic COVID-19 Emergency Bursary.

The livestream performance coincides with the popular annual “May the Fourth be with you” celebration of the Star Wars series. Ross has toured his world-famous production around the globe, entertaining more than a million fans in London’s West End, at the Sydney Opera House and off-Broadway in New York. Performed with permission of Lucasfilm Ltd, the show is fast-paced, funny and suitable for ages six to Yoda.

Most recently, Ross performed his One-Man Pride & Prejudice on April 18 as part of the ongoing #CanadaPerforms series developed by the National Arts Centre.

George Corwin: A life defined by music

Musician, conductor, educator and a legendary figure in the UVic School of Music pantheon, Professor Emeritus George Corwin passed away in his sleep on March 28 at the age of 91. But his influence, wisdom and indomitable love of music will live on through the generations of musicians he inspired.

Growing the School of Music

George Corwin, 1929-2020

During his more than 25 years teaching at UVic, from 1969 to 1995, George helped grow the School of Music to over 200 students and 22 faculty members; directed the UVic Orchestra, UVic Chorus, Chamber Singers and Sonic Lab; and was central to the design of the Farquhar Auditorium in the University Centre—a particular triumph for him when it opened in 1978, and still used by the Orchestra and Chorus to this day.

Refusing to let retirement slow him down, George travelled to Thailand in 1994 to teach and direct the orchestra at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, formed the ensemble Concentus Corvinus in 1995 and continued to direct many local ensembles—notably the Victoria Gilbert & Sullivan Society, the Victoria Operatic Society, the Civic Orchestra and the DieMahler Ensemble. Indeed, George’s final performance was on Feb 28, 2020—only a month before his death—with the DieMahler Ensemble.

“He loved music,” notes fellow School of Music Professor Emeritus Dr. Gerald King, former conductor of the UVic Wind Symphony. “He was a fine musician, conductor—always prepared—[and] a wonderful model for all of us. It is with great sadness that I write this; however, there is much joy in what I learned from this amazing man, musician, colleague and friend.”

A lasting legacy

A major influence on several generations of students, it was in his role as teacher that George left his most lasting legacy.

“Dr. Corwin is the reason I conduct,” says Music alum Kathleen Mulligan on this page of reminiscences. Now a music educator based in New Zealand, Mulligan says his influence was invaluable. “His process of teaching these skills through The Messiah gave me all the tools I needed to work with wind bands big and small, beginner to advanced. I loved those classes . . . . thanks for the music, George.”

“I have fond—and terrifying—memories of playing and singing for Dr. Corwin,” says Music alum Nick Apivor. “He was tough on us all and didn’t put up with any BS, but it was only because he cared about the music and cared about us as musicians. His influence on generations of musicians is enormous: he prepared us for the real world, he showed me the difference a fine conductor can make on an orchestra, and he exposed me to a world of beautiful classical music that I treasure. Such a gift!”

Describing him as “a profound presence in the Victoria music community,” alum Alan Riches recalls George as “a formidable presence, [but] he always approached his instruction in a calm and learned way. I loved my time under his tutelage while a member of the UVic Orchestra.”

“He was the most amazing man . . . I value all the things he taught,” notes Carrie Taylor, while fellow alum Ken Brewer says, “I am the musician I am today because of the tutelage of this strong man. He is in my heart and soul forever.”

His early years

Corwin at a 1977 UVic Orchestra rehearsal

Born in Goshen, New York, in 1929, George’s love for music first started at St. Thomas Choir School in New York City, which he attended from the ages of seven to 12, becoming a lead soloist; his musical studies in orchestra and choir continued at the Newburgh Free Academy, after which he joined the United States Marine Corps at 17, serving in both Hawaii and Korea. After his discharge, he enrolled in the Ithaca College School of Music, where he performed in orchestras and bands as a trombonist and percussionist, and also continued to sing; it was at Ithaca that he met his future wife—Joanne Elizabeth Bahn—on a blind date, where both completed their degrees in Music and married in August 1953.

In 1960 George was invited by noted American composer Howard Hanson to join the conducting staff at the famed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. “Howard Hanson was the most important figure in my entire life as a musician and teacher,” George recalled. “Hanson put me in classes that he knew I was capable of teaching, and at the same time they were classes that would help me advance in my career.”

Conducting the Eastman Philharmonic, Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and becoming music director of the Collegium Musicum, George completed his doctoral studies and taught for two years at Indiana’s Ball State University before coming to Victoria in 1969 at the invitation of then-Chair of Music, Phillip T. Young, to develop UVic’s orchestra and choir.

“A major figure in my life”

But few can articulate George’s influence more than alumnus and noted Vancouver composer David MacIntyre, who recently retired as chair of the Music program at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, where he taught for 38 years following his studies at UVic.

“I first met George Corwin when I transferred to UVic as a fourth-year undergrad in the fall of 1973. Although I was a major in music composition, I knew from the moment I met him that he was going to be a major figure in my life,” says MacIntyre.

“Indeed, he became exactly that and my life is richer simply for having known him—but he was more than a teacher. He was a mentor and guide from the end of my undergraduate studies until I’d finished grad school and I’d been appointed to a tenure track position at SFU. Then, he became my friend, a close and valued friend, one of those rare friends that you can count on as long as you live your life. And I counted on him and he was there for me—from my appointment at SFU at the tender age of 26 until the day he died. Coupled with the six years I was his student both as an undergrad and grad student, I’ve known George Corwin over 50 years—and, you know, the man grows on you!”

“If you love music—in all its breadth, width, depth, height and joy—then you can’t help but love that man,” he continues. “He was serious about the art of music, extremely serious, extremely demanding. And he demands the same of every musician he works with. He never says it, of course, because the great ones never do. He simply is demanding of himself and of you.”

“George Corwin was a class act like no other. He was a man of extraordinary knowledge and love of music. One cannot conduct so many works without the depth of love and study he brought to every score he encountered,” MacIntyre concludes. “Music has rarely had such a faithful servant.”

As Stravinsky once said to him . . .

As noted in his Times Colonist obituary, composer Igor Stravinsky once said to George, “Young man, your job as a conductor is not to interpret the composer’s music. It is your job to find the composer in his music and allow him to speak.”

George will forever be remembered for finding the composer’s voice and allowing us to experience the joy of music with him.


Fine Arts events cancelled in response to COVID-19

In response to the ongoing and global spread of the COVID-19 virus and the advice of the Provincial Health Officer, the University of Victoria is following provincial guidelines regarding large gatherings.

These actions have been taken in consideration of the recent declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization, confirming that the virus is likely to spread to all countries with a corresponding rise in the risk level of all international travel. It also supports our commitment to the safety and well-being of our campus community and the health of our broader community.

As part of our response to the evolving COVID-19 situation, UVic has created a COVID-19 response website to provide the university community with the most up-to-date information — including tips for staying healthy, information for travellers, and other resources for students, faculty and staff.

Cancelled events

Following the advice of the Provincial Health Officer, gatherings of more than 50 people are now cancelled. These events involving Fine Arts faculty, students and alumni have been cancelled:

  • The Children’s Hour, Phoenix Theatre
  • Belfry Theatre’s SPARK Festival
  • MFA Connect: Floatation Devices exhibit
  • Legacy Gallery downtown (including Urban Regalia FLUID exhibits)
  • Yvonne Blomer book launch (March 18)
  • Heng Wu guest lecture (March 19)
  • Sonic Lab (March 20)
  • Betsy Tumasonis AGGV guest lecture (March 22)
  • Vocal Jazz Ensemble (March 22)
  • Visiting Artist: Chantal Gibson (March 25)
  • Chamber Singers (March 28)
  • Faculty Concert: Connie Gitlin (March 29)
  • Gendered Threads of Globalization symposium (March 27-29)
  • UVic Wind Symphony (March 27)
  • Don Wright Symphonic Winds (April 2)
  • UVic Orchestra (April 3)
  • Middle East & Islamic Studies Consortium conference, UVic (April 4)
  • Mallory Tater reading, Munro’s Books (April 9)

Livestreaming events

The School of Music will be live-streaming a limited number of degree recitals in the coming weeks: please see their events calendar for specific details.

Stay up to date

Please see UVic’s COVID-19 website for all the latest information on UVic’s response to this health crisis.