Dr. Mary Kerr on the desk of her office. The theatre professor has been recognized for transforming stages through her design for five decades. (UVic Photo Services)

Dr. Mary Kerr on the desk of her office. The theatre professor has been recognized for transforming stages through her design for five decades. (UVic Photo Services)

Oak Bay set designer wins Molson Prize Laureate

Mary Kerr, UVic theatre professor, earns esteemed award

Longtime Oak Bay resident Mary Kerr of the University of Victoria theatre department is the prestigious Molson Prize Laureate for 2020.

It puts her into a group of famous Canadians who’ve won the prize that includes two people she studied under, philosopher Marshall McLuhan and literary theorist Northrop Frye, and one that she worked with, artistic director Christopher Newton.

Kerr has taught in UVic’s theatre department since 1998. How she got here is a story unto itself.

“When I started, women didn’t do set design, but I didn’t know that,” Kerr said. “It was, ‘women sew, men hammer,’ but I didn’t go to school for stage design, so I didn’t know what I wasn’t supposed to do.”

A photo of Transformation, the opening ceremony of the 1994 Commonwealth Games at UVic’s Centennial Stadium, designed by Mary Kerr. (UVic image)

Kerr entered a design contest for Expo 67 with a team of students studying industrial design at the University of Waterloo. They took first place over teams from the University of Berkeley and Bauhaus School of Design.

Through it all, the daughter of a dance instructor in Winnipeg followed her mother into the arts.

She trained first as dancer, a sculpture, and a pianist, but she got whiplash when someone driving 55 km/h rear-ended the MGB she was in at a stop sign. It took a while to recover and forced her into more schooling and into design.

READ MORE: Oak Bay-based performing arts students rally to present digital year-end musical, during pandemic

She designed a space for the Dalai Lama to present in during a Toronto visit. She designed at Expo 86, the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, and at the Paris Opera. In fact, the only reason she’s in Oak Bay is because her mom was dying in 1991 and she gave up a job she had just lined up at The Old Vic in the Covent Garden theatre district of London. She still lives in that same house, though she took care of her dad there for another 15 years before he passed.

“I love it here, I fell in love with it,” Kerr said, adding she’s proud to be the first designer to win the Molson Prize Laureate. “I’m very excited, I have to pinch myself. It’s important that women, young women, see that a woman can do set design.”

At one point during her career, Mick Jagger called Kerr on a recommendation, requesting she design a stage outfit for him during a tour in Canada.

“I called him ‘Nick,’ I didn’t know the Rolling Stones, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m too busy right now,’” Kerr said. “Gosh, I would have loved to though. He’s as great dancer.”

At UVic, Kerr guides students through the process of conceiving and designing costumes and sets for productions the Phoenix Theatre. She also regularly mentors students after graduation to successful design careers around the world.

READ ALSO: ‘Actoids’ hit the stage at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre

“[Kerr’s] 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,” said Valerie Kuehne, Vice-President Academic and Provost at UVic.

It was after the 1994 Commonwealth Games that UVic took notice of Kerr’s work and presence in the region.

The Commonwealth ceremony, Transformation, is one Kerr is particularly proud of. Artists weren’t putting First Nations cultures on the big stage then. She pitched her idea and met with one First Nation leader after another, all turned her down, until finally she met Chief Adam Dick, Kwaxsistalla.

“I had just been in New Zealand where the Maori culture was on display, and it was powerful,” Kerr said. “I watched as Dame Whina Cooper, who had lead the Maori land march, walked on stage and said the time for fighting is over, it’s time to work together, and I cried, it was so powerful.”

It was on that inspiration she wanted to make First Nations culture the centrepiece of the ceremony at Centennial Stadium.

“Once I had Chief Adam’s acceptance, he told me the oldest of his people’s creation stories, and that was special,” Kerr said. “Even the Queen was part of it. At the end of the ceremony, she gets up and walks into the longhouse we designed.”

The ceremony was broadcast on television, and Adam received correspondence from Aboriginal people all over the world asking, “‘how did you get your government to recognize you like that,” Kerr said.

For the award, Kerr earns a $50,000 award as a Molson Prize Laureate. It’s the third Molson Prize for a UVic faculty, its first for fine arts. John Borrows (law) received a Molson Prize last year and Angus McLaren (history) received the university’s first in 2008.

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.

reporter@oakbaynews.com


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
University of Victoria researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada

Emergency health services treated a person after they were blocking traffic at the intersection of Fort and Douglas Streets on June 17. (Evert Lindquist/ News Staff)
Victoria intersection traffic returns to normal after protester blocked roadway

A person in a motorized wheelchair was blocking the intersection at Fort and Douglas Streets

New COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island by local health area for the week of June 6-12. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control image)
New COVID-19 cases up on Island, but health officials say trends going right way

There were 22 new COVID-19 cases in Greater Victoria last week after just four the week before

With local high schoolers unable to have a traditional graduation ceremony due to COVID-19 restrictions, Amica Douglas House celebrated the momentous occasion of eight of their dining room servers. (Courtesy Amica Douglas House)
8 Greater Victoria teens don fancy dresses, celebrate grad with seniors

With celebrations nixed, Amica Douglas House hosts event for its serving staff

Eric White’s roadside farm stand in Metchosin sits stocked with produce. (Photo courtesy of Eric White)
Fledgling Metchosin farmer frustrated by thefts from stand

Eric White said every dollar made at the roadside helps sustain his farm

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: When was the last time you visited the mainland?

The films are again lighting the screens at local theatres, the wine… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of June 15

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van exploded while refueling just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

Most Read