Tom Kerr, “a giant of a man”

Obituary of director Tom Kerr

Tom Kerr was a major force in Canadian theatre and has left an enormous legacy.

Hi everybody,

Glen Cairns, the longtime partner of theatre director and teacher Tom Kerr, wrote the tribute I’m sharing here.

Stay well,
Colin

The fifth of eight children born to Commercial Traveler John Kerr and his wife, Rosina Montgomery Kerr, Tom was born in the toney Queen’s Park neighborhood of Glasgow, Scotland, on October 3, 1929. At the age of three, his father’s untimely death caused Rosina, now the widowed mother of eight children, to relocate the family to what the Scots call a “wally close”, a two room, cold water, walk up flat in a tenement in Glasgow’s Gorbals District which, at that time, was one of the most violent and poverty stricken slums in Europe. He spent the remainder of the Great Depression and most of WW2 there, transfixed by the Music Hall and Variety Shows at the local theatres, learning hundreds of popular songs from the songbooks his mother collected and sheltering from the air raids and the frequent Luftwaffe bombing of the shipyards at Clydebank. That’s how Tommy, which is what his close friends and family called him, grew up to be both a renowned theatre director and a Glaswegian street fighter, the latter characteristic forming the bedrock of his character and his illustrious later career. That fighting spirit, inherited from his mother and father, ran strongly through the whole family. His older brother, Charlie Kerr, became the bantam weight boxing champion of the UK, and his sister, Nora, became a passionate union organizer. He was pre-deceased by his siblings, John, Charlie, James, Peter, Nora and Margaret. His youngest brother, Joe and his wife Jean, remain in Pickering, Ontario, and he has nieces and nephews, too numerous to mention but much beloved, scattered across the globe.

Tommy bootstrapped himself out of The Gorbals at the age of 16, making his way alone from Glasgow to New York on a Transatlantic steamer in the final months of WW2. From New York he made his way to Toronto, where he found employment as a labourer on the floor of the Lux Soap Factory before making the long journey west to the home of his Aunt, a seamstress who lived in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. While living in the Alberni Valley, he worked as a logger, a longshoreman and a bartender while studying with Anne Mossman at her studio in Yellow Point. In between his blue collar jobs, his studies with Mossman earned him three Trinity College Degrees (Associate, Licentiate and Fellow of Trinity College, London) in The Practice and Theory of Speech.  He recently received an Honorary Doctorate from UBC Okanagan for his contributions to Canadian theatre.

He got his first teaching job in Dawson Creek in 1951. He always said “the first day I walked into a classroom, I knew I had found my home”. Sitting in that classroom on that first day were two students, Eric Schneider and Blain Fairman, both of whom became lifelong friends and would achieve acclaim as leading actors, Schneider on radio and major stages across Canada and Fairman on stages, film and radio in the UK. They were the first of many students and emerging, young artists he taught and influenced: Keith Dinicol, Gabrielle Rose, a very young Kim Cattrall, Barbara Williams, Brent Carver, Susan Wright, Rick Fox and Kim Coates among them. Teaching and mentoring young and emerging artists remained his lifelong passion.

With a professional CV too lengthy to include here, Tom was a friend and protégé of the great 20th Century director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie. He was also a frequent director of shows at The Arts Club and Vancouver Playhouse and The Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, and was a member of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame. He was the founding artistic director of Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, an interim artistic director of Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, and was, on two separate occasions, the artistic director of Neptune Theatre, Halifax . Notably, he directed Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at The Glasgow Citizens Theatre, helmed the Citadel Theatre production of Brian Moore’s Catholics on its ultimately unsuccessful journey to New York, and directed John Neville and Liv Ullman in a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at The Kennedy Centre and on Broadway. He was a full professor and Head of the Department of Drama at The University of Saskatchewan and regularly filled guest professor vacancies at other university theatre departments across the country. For those who only knew him later in life as a garrulous and slightly eccentric senior citizen, yes, it is true, he and Keiffer Sutherland really were good friends. Tom is also the only Canadian theatre artist to have successfully sued a theatre critic and a major national newspaper for libel. The case, Kerr vs. Conlogue was heard in the B.C. Supreme Court and forms the basis of much recent libel jurisprudence. He took no pleasure in it, but felt compelled to take a stand on principle. The party who provided the false information which the critic and newspaper failed to verify shall remain nameless.

An early champion of Canadian playwrights, he directed CBC Radio scripts by Margaret Hollingsworth, John Lazarus, Laurence Gough and others. He was also a regular directorial collaborator with the late George Ryga, winning a Fringe First Award at Edinburgh for the British Premier of Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and producing and directing the premiere of George’s raucous comedy, Ploughmen of the Glacier at Western Canada Theatre. He later toured a group of his University of Saskatchewan theatre students to Edinburgh with the British premiere of Joanna Glass’s Canadian Gothic/American Modern and won a second Fringe First Award for the British Premiere of David Freeman’s Creeps.

A longtime friend and collaborator of playwright John Gray, Tom was an early champion of Billy Bishop Goes To War, booking the show into Persephone Theatre, Saskatoon, in early January of 1979, immediately following its premiere at The Vancouver East Cultural Centre. He later commissioned Gray’s farce, You Better Watch Out for The Neptune Theatre and The Vancouver Playhouse as well as commissioning Gray’s Don Messer’s Jubilee for Neptune Theatre and a subsequent national tour. When John’s 29 page script for Jubilee, absent any musical charts, arrived at the theatre, Tommy quipped, “what the hell is this?” Then John arrived, sat down at the piano in the rehearsal hall, and the two of them along with comedian Bill Carr, (who was conscripted the night before the first rehearsal, following a chance encounter with Tom on Argyle Street. “Hey, Bill,” Tom called across the street,  “would you like to be in a play?”) and designer Stephen Degenstein and choreographer Linda Elliott made magic happen. Linda’s choreography of The Buchta Dancers (four dancers and four tailor’s mannequins on wheels – a pragmatic choice made to accommodate Tom’s notoriously tight fisted budgets) was a work of comic genius.

As the band played, the dancers whirled and a bowler hatted Frank Mackay, playing a Chaplinesque Charlie Chamberlain, launched into a fiddle driven Maritime reel called Never Trust A Corporation with the memorable chorus “Never trust a corporation, corporations have no class. Never trust a corporation, you’ll wind up kissing ass”. Certain members of the black tie opening night audience were not amused. Sanctions such as withdrawing financial support for the theatre were threatened. Tom and John held firm. The lyrics remained. So did the financial support.

Tommy was a giant of a man who will be missed terribly by his friends, his family , his worldwide web of former students and his theatrical colleagues. My God, he could make us laugh. “This building has twelve exits. If anyone is unhappy, please feel free to use one of them!” or “No, darling, I would need a good actor to do it that way”. A teacher to the very core of his being, Tommy kept a roster of private students until very near the end of his life. In his final weeks, his long battle with spinal stenosis robbed him of his ability to stand or walk and, afflicted with vascular dementia as a result of a series of strokes, he succumbed to pneumonia on Sunday, March 22. He is survived by his friend, creative collaborator and partner of forty two years, Glen Cairns. A celebration of Tom’s life will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in Tom’s name to The Actor’s Fund of Canada, 1000 Yonge Street, Suite 301, Toronto, Ontario M4W 2K2.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Dorothy Kerr says:

    I am Tommy’s niece and this obit is a wonderful fabrication Tommy would have loved.

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