Western Canada Theatre founder Kerr remembered for drama contributions

Tom Kerr died on March 22 following an illness. He was 90. Kerr played a vital part in teaching local actors and creating local audiences in the earliest days of regional theatre.

Tom Kerr is being remembered for his style, personality and bold choices in how he brought theatre to Kamloops.

Kerr died Sunday following an illness. He was 90.

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The founding artistic director of Western Canada Theatre, Kerr played a vital part in teaching local actors and creating local audiences in the earliest days of regional theatre.

He started teaching at NorKam secondary in the 1960s and was initially told the prospects of him teaching drama there were slim to none. But just years later, he was leading NorKam groups to top prizes at drama festivals.

Lanni Shupe, then Lanni McInnes, studied under Kerr beginning in 1968, after her mother spotted a story in the newspaper that he had come to the city and was teaching drama.

Shupe’s mother had seen productions Kerr had directed when he taught in Dawson Creek and knew that this would be an opportunity for her daughter. It turns out she was right.

“He was deadly serious about theatre and professionalism,” Shupe recalled.

Shupe was taken by Kerr’s teaching style. He could be ferocious. He could be charming. He used professionals to show younger actors what acting looked like as a profession.

That’s something Marian Owens remembers, too. She worked with Kerr for 10 years during his time as the school district’s drama director — a job he convinced the district to create for him, leading to his establishment of drama programs in Kamloops schools.

Owens, the district’s former musical director, said Kerr had a knack for bringing in professionals to take the leads so students could see how they worked.

“Our ideas were quite different, but he was so good at showing the students what drama was all about,” she said.

Despite having different philosophies, Owens said she greatly admired Kerr.

“He was so open to suggestions and was always a perfectionist with his students — always wanting things to be the best they could be,” she recalled.

Shupe can remember how intense the program was, especially for high school.

“If you were just there to put in time, he showed you the door. Those students weren’t very happy, but it was rewarding for the rest of us,” she said.

But Kerr knew what impact his work could have, in both Kamloops and beyond.

“There weren’t that many regional theatres back then — some in the major centres — but nothing in the Hinterland. He set about to change that,” she recalled.

Shupe said Kerr was not only teaching students, but audiences, too. She recalled his work in bringing new types of plays to Kamloops, and then out from the city and into other B.C. cities — and even further.

“Through all his life he said that Canada is such a young country. Really, we were pioneering theatre arts and teaching the public what it could be like to have theatre arts in the country,” Shupe said.

Shupe’s involvement with Kerr didn’t end with high school. She stayed as one of his actors for as long as he stayed in Kamloops, until 1983, when he left to direct for the Neptune Theatre in Halifax.

Western Canada Youth Theatre began with poetry and Shakespeare composites and then moved on to musicals and finally a one-act drama.

Kerr’s work with the group led it all the way to England more than once, with performances in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Throughout the years, Kerr also served as the head of the drama department at the University of Saskatchewan, the artistic director at the Persephone Theatre and the head of the Stratford Festival’s young company.

In Kamloops, he introduced new types of plays to city audiences, building them up to support what would eventually become Western Canada Theatre.

“He always believed that Kamloops audiences were discerning. He took it beyond the big broadway musicals. Yes, we did those, but he taught them to come to comedy, drama, farce,” Shupe remembers.

There would not be a Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops without him, Shupe said.

“He was the one that brought all the components together, the necessary board members, funding, the core company, he had access to professionals all over the country,” Shupe said.

Lori Marchand, former WCT general manager, said she was saddened to hear of Kerr's passing.

"Tom was, of course, really influential on the theatre scene in Kamloops and very much responsible for a good part of my career, and many, many careers throughout the country. He will be missed," she said.

Marchand is now the managing director of the first Indigenous theatre department in the world at the Indigenous Theatre of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Owens kept Kerr’s friendship, too, and recalled how accomplished he was.

“Nobody ever arrives at the top. But he certainly came close,” she said.

© Kamloops This Week


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