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)

From Mick Jagger to the Dalai Lama: Mary Kerr has set the stage

Vancouver Island set designer wins national Molson Prize Laureate

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.

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