Somerset's legacy lives despite studio's close

by Connie Bagshaw
Staff writer

Of the hundreds of productions that have been performed in the Dorothy Somerset Studio over the past 30 years, two stand out in Ian Pratt's mind.

One was the ambitious staging of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor as a musical; the other was an experimental piece by a New York-based avant-garde troupe whose performance featured male frontal nudity. The audience included several elderly patrons in the front row.

"Flexibility is the studio's great strength," said Pratt, an associate professor of theatre who joined UBC as a part-time staff member in 1960.

As a technical assistant at the Frederic Wood Theatre in 1968, Pratt helped in the actual construction of the Dorothy Somerset Studio, named for the founding head of UBC's Theatre Dept. established a decade earlier.

His memories, prompted by next month's closing of the studio as a performance space, include how a bare storage basement built onto the back of the Frederic Wood Theatre was transformed into what would become the training ground for so many of Canada's theatre elite including Brent Carver, Nicola Cavendish, Scott Hylands, Larry Lillo and Goldie Semple.

"Some of the best shows I've ever seen were presented in that studio," said Bob Eberle, an assistant professor of Theatre and production manager of the Frederic Wood Theatre. "The intimacy of the space provided a true apprenticeship setting for the students working with guests, faculty and staff, and created a closeness between the actors and the audience.

"So many people have fond memories of their time spent at the studio. An enormous amount of learning has taken place there."

Eberle explained that because the studio was a venue for individual productions, students had the opportunity to learn and understand every aspect of staging a play, from preparing budgets to lighting design.

A number of theatre companies were founded by UBC graduates who gained their experience at the Dorothy Somerset Studio, including Touchstone Theatre Company and the Tamahnous Theatre Workshop Society.

Although Somerset's name will not be connected to a performance venue on campus, it will be attached to rehearsal space being proposed in phase two of the new Creative Arts Building, currently being designed. Upon closing, the studio will be converted to a costume room which Eberle described as being like a laboratory.

"Student involvement in creating costumes is significant," Eberle said. "Currently they use the trap room under the Frederic Wood Theatre, working around equipment, props and anything else that has to come up through the stage floor for a production on the main stage. It's terrific that the theatre will also be able to reclaim that space entirely for what it is intended to be."

Eberle said that while department members lament the closure of the Dorothy Somerset Studio, they are excited about moving to the BC Tel Studio Theatre located in the new Chan Centre for the Performing Arts which officially opens to the public in May.

Designed to accommodate a variety of configurations tailored to each production or event, the facility has an audience capacity ranging from 180 to 288. The Dorothy Somerset Studio has 80 seats.

"It is a massive upgrade for us," Eberle said. "Of course, as standards go up, so does the pressure."

Treated with Tango is the final production playing at the Dorothy Somerset Studio before closing its doors.

Written and directed by MFA directing student Valerie Methot, Treated with Tango runs Jan. 22 to Feb. 1, with additional performances Feb. 6 to 8 during UBC's annual Arts Fest.

Proceeds from the Jan. 23 and Feb. 8 performances of the play, inspired by Methot's loss of a close friend to AIDS, will be donated to A Loving Spoonful which provides nutritious meals to people living with the disease.