Dorothy Somerset was the leading lady of the Vancouver Little Theatre in the
1920s when she began her association with UBC, teaching French.
A Radcliffe College graduate, Somerset had performed with the Harvard Dramatic
Society, studied theatre in England, directed the annual productions of the
University Players’ Club — the first all-student drama society in Canada —
and made guest appearances with the British Guild Players.
By the time she became the first permanent staff member of UBC’s fledgling
Dept. of Extension in 1937, where she served as the supervisor of drama for
the next 20 years, Somerset was one of Vancouver’s most trained and experienced
It was at this time that she embarked on one of her greatest contributions
to the theatre — making it an accepted academic discipline at the university.
By the mid-1930s, universities across North America had started to subtly
shift theatre and music from the performance stage into the classroom through
the back door as extracurricular studies–a method since referred to as the
bootlegging of the arts.
Within two years of joining the Dept. of Extension, Somerset had established
an impressive list of theatre services which included a play-lending library,
short drama courses, a correspondence course, an evening class in playwriting
and a radio series called the University Drama School.
She had also established the department’s Summer School of the Theatre, the
first important step in the development of drama courses on campus. The school,
first held in 1938, continued until its activities merged into the Theatre Dept.’s
credit courses in 1964.
In 1951, Somerset was given the old Totem Coffee Bar to convert into a theatre
for academic work in dramatics. A year later, it opened as the first Frederic
Wood Theatre — Vancouver’s only legitimate theatrical venue at the time.
A few years later, when her request to the English Department curriculum committee
for a poetry speaking course was denied, Somerset applied to Senate for a separate
theatre department. It was approved in 1958, and Somerset was appointed as head.
Grateful of so many years of achievement and contributions to the university,
UBC conferred Somerset with an honorary degree in 1965. She died on Aug. 11,