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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead in ‘targeted incident’ on Sooke Road

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

A decade into the 100-year blueprint for restoring the Bowker Creek watershed, Soren Henrich, director of the Friends of Bowker Creek Society, feels positive about the future of conservation and daylighting of the creek. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Ten years in, Greater Victoria’s 100-year Bowker Creek blueprint gets a boost

Victoria council passes several restoration recommendations

A resurfacing of the tennis court in Metchosin is being eyed for the community. However, funding opportunities still need to be solidified for the project. (Michelle Cabana/Black Press Media)
Renewed surface eyed for Metchosin tennis court

Funding source must first be solidified in order for project to happen

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

(Black Press Media files)
Medicine gardens help Victoria’s Indigenous kids in care stay culturally connected

Traditional plants brought to the homes of Indigenous kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Personal protective equipment is seen in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
$16.9 million invested to improve worker safety, strengthen B.C.’s food supply chain

Money to be used for social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, and air circulation

More than ever before, as pandemic conditions persist, the threat of data breaches and cyberattacks continues to grow, according to SFU professor Michael Parent. (Pixabay photo)
SFU expert unveils 5 ways the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed cybersecurity

Recognizing these changes is the first in a series of steps to mitigate them once the pandemic ends, and before the next: Michael Parent

Kevin Haughton is the founder/technologist of Courtenay-based Clearflo Solutions. Scott Stanfield photo
Islander aims Clearflo clean drinking water system at Canada’s remote communities

Entrepreneur $300,000 mobile system can produce 50,000 litres of water in a day, via solar energy

Most Read