Sixty years ago, thanks to the drive of UBC English professor Dorothy Somerset, the UBC Department of Theatre and Film opened its doors to students. Somerset’s influence is marked on buildings across UBC Vancouver’s Arts & Culture District, including the Dorothy Somerset Studio and the Dorothy Somerset Mezzanine Area in the Frederic Wood Theatre. Furthermore, since 1995, the Dorothy Somerset Memorial Scholarship in Theatre has been helping new generations of innovators shape the future of theatre.
The department’s beginnings were humble. Somerset had initially asked to start a poetry speaking course. The English department denied this request, so she strategically cast a wider net and applied to the UBC Senate to create a separate Theatre Department. This request was granted, with Somerset becoming the first head of the new department.
While Somerset retired as head of the Theatre Department in 1960, she continued to teach on campus, receiving an honorary degree from UBC in 1965. After passing away in 1991, the Dorothy Somerset Memorial Scholarship was established in her honour by friends and family, including her nephew, J. Stuart Clyne, who contributes to the fund to this day.
“I was at UBC from 1950 to 1956 and I certainly remember her there,” says Clyne. “I can remember going to see some of her productions in the army huts, and they were fascinating! When she became head of the Theatre Department, she used to take student plays on the road to various towns in BC. She was a real innovator and champion of theatre at UBC.”
From the beginning under Somerset, innovation was always a vital component in the UBC Theatre & Film department. Fittingly, the Dorothy Somerset Memorial Scholarship is enabling this tradition to continue. Kimira Bhikum, a recent graduate of the Theatre Design and Production MFA program, received the award and it helped her take innovation to a new reality—a virtual one. For her thesis project, Bhikum created sets rendered in virtual reality (VR) to enhance communication between directors and designers laying the foundation for change in set design.
“I wondered if I could enhance the set design process by incorporating VR into the creative process,” says Bhikum. “Set design is centred around the ‘vision,’ that elusive spark of creativity forming in the mind’s eye that needs to be expressed in the real world. I believe that VR could help bridge the gap between vision and expression.”
After just one month of her thesis, Bhikum had created a fully modelled set design viewable in VR. Using technology unimaginable 60 years ago, she is breaking new ground in 21st-century theatre set design, continuing the innovative approach pioneered by Dorothy Somerset. With 2019 marking the UBC Department of Theatre and Film’s 60th anniversary, Somerset’s memory is still very present, with campus facilities and a scholarship which honour her name and legacy.
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