A Long History of Creative Achievers

Dorothy Somerset, UBC Theatre Dept. Founder in front of the newly constructed Frederic Wood Theatre in 1958 - photo courtesy of UBC Theatre Dept.
Dorothy Somerset, UBC Theatre Dept. Founder in front of the newly constructed Frederic Wood Theatre in 1958 – photo courtesy of UBC Theatre Dept.

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Julie-Ann Backhouse

UBC has shaped and inspired many talented, artistic individuals who have produced outstanding creative work and left a legacy of brilliant teaching. Today many are known in the international cultural arena and have represented Canada to global audiences. Who are some of these quiet, and not so quiet, creative achievers and what they have created?


UBC Players’ Club. Founded in 1915, the Players’ Club was the longest running student drama society in Canada. The club aimed to provide training in theatre for UBC students with one-act plays performed every spring and fall throughout the province. These tours contributed significantly to the cultural life of B.C. and helped integrate the university with the outlying areas of the province. Frederic Wood served as director of all plays from 1916 to 1931. The Players’ Club disbanded in 1966 following the establishment and growth of the Department of Theatre at UBC and was revived in the 1990s.

Dorothy Somerset. Actor and Teacher. One of Somerset’s greatest contributions was making theatre an accepted academic discipline at a university level. Her association with UBC went back to the 1920s when she started teaching French. In 1937 she became the first member of the new Department of Extension and was drama supervisor for 20 years. She became director of the UBC Players’ Club in 1934 and served as first artistic administrative head of the Frederic Wood Theatre until her retirement in 1965. Somerset successfully petitioned the UBC senate for a separate theatre department, becoming the first head of UBC’s theatre program in 1958. Paying tribute to her vision and passion, UBC established the Dorothy Somerset award and the Dorothy Somerset studio. She received an honorary degree from UBC in 1965 and died in 1991.

Norman MacKenzie. UBC President. MacKenzie was president from 1944 to 1962 and, with a passion for the humanities, the 1950s and 60s became an important time for the creative arts at UBC.  As a member of the Massey Commission, 1949-51, he was instrumental in helping to establish the Canada Council. Under his leadership there was a major expansion of all artistic programs on campus and his legacy helped UBC launch and develop hundreds of creative careers.

Joy Coghill. Actor and Director. Coghill’s honours include a Governor General’s award, a Canadian Theatre Critics Association award for Outstanding Contribution to Canadian Theatre, honorary degrees from SFU and UBC, four Jessie awards and an Order of Canada. Coghill was Artistic Director of the Playhouse Theatre Company in the 1960s and is currently director of Western Gold Theatre. She graduated from UBC in 1947.


Bertram Charles Binning. Artist and Teacher. Binning was a distinguished Canadian painter who founded the Department of Fine Arts at UBC in 1955. He was instrumental in establishing the UBC Canadian art collection, today known as the Alma Mater Society Collection, and former fine art gallery. Binning represented Canada at the prestigious Sao Paulo and Venice biennales and his work can be found in private and public collections including: the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. In 1971 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. Binning continued to teach at UBC as Professor Emeritus until his death in 1976.

Alfred Earle Birney. Writer. Birney was an influential Canadian writer, publishing more than 20 books and winning two Governor General’s Awards in poetry. He enrolled at UBC to become a chemical engineer and graduated from the English program in 1926. Birney established the UBC Creative Writing program in 1965, the first university writing program in Canada. At that time it was considered a radical departure from traditional writing programs and today it retains an innovative spirit, producing a host of talented young writers. Birney received an honorary degree from UBC in 1985 and died in 1995.

Philip Keatley. Producer. Keatley was the original producer of The Beachcombers, Canada’s longest running television drama (from 1971-1990) and CBC’s most successful syndicated series airing in 35 countries. He also produced two other long- running series, Cariboo Country (1960-67), one of Canada’s first to be filmed on location, and Cold Squad (1998-2005). Keatley is 1951 BA graduate from UBC.

Frederic Wood Theatre. The theatre was named for Frederic Wood, one of the two original members of the UBC English Dept. and founder of UBC’s Players’ Club. The Frederic Wood Theatre was established on campus in 1952 in the old Totem canteen. A purpose-built venue opened at its current site 10 years later. For more than 55 years, the theatre has played a key role in the development of Canadian theatre.

Gordon Smith. Artist and Teacher. Smith is a prominent Canadian artist, internationally recognized as a painter and printmaker. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at the National Gallery of Canada and the Smithsonian Institute in the US. Smith is recognized for making a significant contribution to art education in this region during his tenure at both the Vancouver School of Art and at UBC, where he was faculty member in the Department of Education for over 25 years. Smith received an honorary doctorate from UBC and an Order of Canada for his significant contribution to Canadian culture in 1996. He became a UBC Professor Emeritus in 1983.

Peter Oberlander. Architect and City Planner. Oberlander taught at UBC for 37 years and was Canada’s first professor of city planning. After joining UBC’s School of Architecture in 1950, he became the founding director of the School of Community and Regional Planning six years later. In 1973, he founded the UBC Centre for Human Settlements and held the position of director until 1987. Oberlander was also Deputy Minister for Canada’s Ministry of State for Urban Affairs from 1970 to 1973. He received an Order of Canada in 1994 and is a UBC Professor Emeritus.


Wayson Choy. Novelist and Teacher. Choy graduated from UBC in 1963 where he studied writing under Earle Birney. He returned in 1977 for a brief period and was taught by Carol Shields in the Creative Writing Program. His novels Jade Peony (1995), Paper Shadows (1999) and All That Matters (2004) have won several awards and he received the Order of Canada in 2005. Choy currently teaches writing at Humber College in Toronto.

Daryl Duke. Director, Producer, Writer. Duke was an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, who has worked for major U.S. television networks and Hollywood studios. He directed Tai-Pan, the first western feature film to be shot in the People’s Republic of China. Duke directed the television mini-series The Thorn Birds (1999) and founded CKVU, an independent Vancouver television station now known as CityTV. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of Canada in 2003. Duke died in 2006.

Ken Gass. Director. Gass studied theatre and creative writing at UBC, graduating with a BA in 1967. He was co-founder of Toronto’s Factory Theatre Lab that championed new Canadian plays and was considered ‘the’ hot theatre in Canada in the ‘70s. Under Gass, the Factory developed new plays and nurtured playwrights including George F.Walker, one of Canada’s internationally renowned playwrights. Gass returned to the Factory in 1998, where he remains as Artistic Director.

Ian McDougall. Trombonist and Teacher. McDougall performed with Canadian jazz band Boss Brass, considered the Canadian ambassadors of jazz to the world, as lead trombone and soloist for 20 years. McDougall’s compositions and in both jazz and classical idioms are performed internationally. He was also a founding member for the Brass Connection. McDougall graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Music in 1965 and resides in Victoria, BC, where he performs regularly, teaches and writes.

Bing Thom. Architect. Thom studied architecture at UBC, graduating in 1966. Locally he is known for his stunning design of the Chan Centre for Performing Arts at UBC and internationally he is recognized for the Canadian Pavillion at Expo 1992 in Seville Spain. Thom received an Order of Canada in 1995.

Jeff Wall. Photographer. Wall studied art history at UBC, receiving his MA in 1970. A leading figure in the Vancouver school of photoconceptualism, Wall broke new ground in the mid-‘70s, mounting large, colour transparencies in lightboxes. A major retrospective of his work Jeff Wall: In his Own Words opened at the MOMA in New York this year, touring to the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2005, a solo exhibition was held at the Tate Modern, London.

Ian Wallace. Artist and Teacher. Wallace received his MA in art history from UBC in 1968 and was an instructor from 1967-70. Wallace integrated photography and painting and is considered a major influence on the Vancouver school of photoconceptualism. A mid-career retrospective of his work was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1988 and he received a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2004. Wallace is represented by galleries in New York, Cologne and Vancouver.

Norman Young. Theatre historian and Teacher. After graduating from UBC, Young worked as an actor, production manager and design director for theatre companies and the CBC in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and London, England. He returned to UBC as technical director of the new theatre department in 1961 and retired after 30 years service. Young is UBC Professor Emeritus and chair of the BC Theatre Hall of Fame.


Billy Bishop Goes to War was a successful musical drama that premiered in Vancouver in 1978. It was written and directed by John Gray and featured Eric Peterson — both UBC theatre graduates. Billy Bishop Goes to War toured to almost every major theatre across Canada and ended up on Broadway. Since then, it has been revived some 150 times, won a Governor General’s award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award.

Brent Carver. Actor. Known in Canada for both stage and film roles. Internationally, he is best known for his performances on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman (which won him a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical in 1993), Fiddler on the Roof and Parade. Carver graduated from UBC with a BA in 1972.

Ben Heppner. Operatic Tenor. Heppner graduated from the UBC School of Music in 1979 and attracted national attention when he won a CBC Radio talent festival that same year. He has received critical acclaim with major opera companies and leading orchestras in Europe and the United States. Heppner continues to tour and record regularly, performing at some of the world’s most prestigious recital venues including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Milan’s La Scala, the Vienna State Opera and London’s Covent Garden. In 1997 his creative achievements were recognized by UBC with an honorary doctorate and in 2002, Heppner was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. A street in Dawson Creek, the town where he lived as a child, has been named Ben Heppner Way.

Morris Panych. Playwright, Actor, Director. After Panych studied creative writing at UBC, he went on to direct over 30 productions, perform in more than 50 plays and television series and write plays that are constantly in production around the world. He has collected two Governor General’s awards for drama — The Ends of the Earth in 1994 and Goldfish Bowl in 2006 — in addition to earning 14 Jessie awards for acting and directing.

Bill Richardson. Broadcaster and Writer. Richardson is a well-known CBC broadcaster, hosting numerous CBC radio programs since 1984. He completed a Master’s of Library Science at UBC in the late 1970s and has hosted the popular Richardson’s Round-Up and Canada Reads. Richardson is also author of several humourous books for adults including his series Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast.


Hart Hanson. Writer and Producer. Graduated with a MFA from the UBC Creative Writing program and taught at UBC as assistant professor from 1990 to 1993. Hanson is the creator and executive producer of Bones, a television series airing on Fox TV for a third season. He has worked on a number of dramas including Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and the Canadian hits Traders and North of Sixty.

Keith Maillard. Author and Poet. Maillard has published 13 novels over the past 30 years. He was nominated for a Governor General’s award for Gloria and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Motet. A UBC professor in the Creative Writing Program, he teaches across all of the nine writing genres offered and inspiring countless young Canadian writers.

George McWhirter. Poet and Novelist. This year McWhirter became Vancouver’s first Poet Laureate, one of many awards and honours he has received in a distinguished writing career. A prolific poet, he has published 10 books of poetry over 30 years in addition to numerous anthologies. He has also produced short stories, radio plays, literary translations and two novels. McWhirter completed his MA at UBC and joined the arts faculty as professor in 1982. He became the head of the Creative Writing program and received the Killam Prize for teaching 1998. After his retirement he received the Graduate Mentorship Award. Many of his students were nominated for and won the Governor General’s Award for poetry. McWirter is a UBC Professor Emeritus.

Sturla Gunnarson. Filmmaker. Gunnarson has made feature films, documentaries and television movies that have won a multitude of awards including Emmy, Genie and Gemini Awards, a Prix Italia, the Prix Villes de Cannes and an Oscar nomination for his documentary After the Axe (1981). His feature films include the comedy Rare Birds (2001) starring William Hurt and Molly Parker and the Bombay epic, Such A Long Journey (1998) starring Roshan Seth and Om Puri, both of which were among the top grossing Canadian movies in the years they were released.

Linda Svendsen. Author, Screenwriter, Teacher. Svendsen produced and co-wrote Human Cargo, a six-hour CBC TV mini-series on refugees that sold to 82 countries, won seven Gemini awards, 4 Leo awards and the 2005 Peabody Award. Other projects include At The End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story, which won two Geminis and a Leo for Best Screenplay, and The Diviners which won three Geminis, including Best Movie. Svendsen has also published Marine Life (1992) a collection of short stories, Writer Turns (2002) and Words We Call Home (1990). She joined UBC in 1989 and is currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program.


Jane Coop. Pianist and Teacher. Coop is a highly regarded Canadian pianist. She has toured extensively throughout North America, Britain, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, China and Japan. Her recitals have graced the international stages in New York, London, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Prague, Beijing and Tokyo. Coop is also an active recording artist, with 13 titles and numerous Juno nominations. She is currently a professor at the UBC School of Music where she has received the designation of Distinguished UBC Scholar.

Gavin Crawford. Actor. Crawford is a cast member with CBC’s award winning This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He received a Gemini award for Best Individual Performance in a comedy in 2004. He has performed, and his work has been showcased, at comedy festivals across Canada. Crawford is also co-writer and star of Gemini nominated The Gavin Crawford Show airing on the Comedy Network.

Bruce Dow. Actor. Dow has appeared in three Broadway shows, Jane Eyre, The Music Man and Anything Goes,and is now in his ninth season as a performer with the Stratford Festival of Canada. He holds both a BFA in acting and an MFA from UBC and is a composer and lyricist for musical theatre.

Ken Lum. Artist, Curator, Teacher. Lum taught art at UBC from 1990 to 2006, six of those years as head of the Graduate Program in Studio Art. At UBC he was awarded the Killam Award for Outstanding Research (1998), the Distinguished University Professor Award (2003), and the Dorothy Somerset Award for Outstanding Achievement in Creative and Performing Art (2003). As an artist, Lum has represented Canada at the Sydney Biennale, the São Paulo Art Biennial, the Shanghai Biennale and Documenta. He was guest professor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and has also taught at leading art academies in Germany, France and China. He currently teaches at Bard College in New York State.

Eden Robinson. Novelist. Robinson is a novelist and member of the Haisla First Nation. She has published two novels, Monkey Beach (2000)and Blood Sports, (2006) and a collection of stories Traplines (1998) which was awarded the Winifred Holtby Prize and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year.

Rena Sharon. Pianist and Teacher. Sharon is considered among Canada’s foremost classical musicians, performing internationally as a chamber musician and soloist. She began performing in concerts throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe at the age of 19. In addition to her concert schedule, she is a professor at the UBC School of Music and received the Dean of Arts Award for excellence in teaching, research, and community outreach. Most recently Sharon has spent time in Rwanda, teaching and performing at orphanages, hospitals and the university.

Lynne Stopkewich. Director, Producer, Writer. Developed as part of her UBC graduate film program thesis, Kissed debuted at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival and its commercial release was considered a worldwide success. Stopkewich went on to make Suspicious River (2000) and the documentary Lilith on Top (2001). Most recently she has executive produced Cameron Labine’s feature debut Control Alt Delete, directed multiple episodes of Global TV’s Search & Rescue, and is working on a multi-director collaborative feature with filmmakers such as Bruce Sweeney and Andrew Currie (Fido).

Bruce Sweeney. Director, Producer, Writer. His feature debut Live Bait (1995), which began as a MFA project at UBC, received critical acclaim in Canada and around the world. Sweeney also received international attention for his film Dirty (1998) which premiered at Sundance Film Festival and won the Telefilm Canada Award for best emerging feature film director. His latest feature American Venus (2007) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and stars Rebecca de Mornay.

Richard Van Camp. Writer and Children’s Book Author. Van Camp graduated with a MFA from the UBC Creative Writing Program and has published many poems, short stories, two children’s books A Man Called Raven (1997) and What’s The Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? (1998), a novel The Lesser Blessed (1996) and a book of short fiction, Angel Wing Splash Pattern (2002). He currently teaches creative writing for Aboriginal students at UBC and is writer-in-residence at CBC Radio.

The Next Generation

Stephen Galloway. Novelist and Playwright. Galloway’s second novel Ascension sold 800,000 copies and has been published in US, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Argentina. His new novel Cellist of Sarajevo will be published in spring 2008. Galloway is a currently a professor in the Creative Writing Program.

Considered the next generation of Canadian writers, a few of the many recent UBC graduates include: Anosh Irani. Novelist and playwright. Irani has published plays and two novels The Cripple and His Talismans (2004) and The Song of Kahunsha (2006). His work has been selected for CBC Reads and he has received a Governor General’s award nomination. Jen Sookfong Lee. Novelist. Lee’s first novel The End of East (2007) was published this year, and garnered glowing reviews across Canada. Nancy Lee. Novelist. Her first book Dead Girls (2002) was published in both Canada and the UK and translated into Dutch, Italian, French, German and Spanish. Madeleine Thien. Novelist. In 2001, Thien received the Most Promising Writer Under Age 30 award from the Canadian Authors Association. She lived up to that promise when her debut novel, Certainty, (2006) won the 2006 First Novel Award from Amazon.ca and Books in Canada.

Two UBC film graduates who have received critical acclaim recently include: Gwen Haworth. Filmmaker. Her MFA thesis film She’s a Boy I Knew had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year to sold-out audiences and won two awards at the festival. Michelle Porter. Writer and Director. Porter’s Regarding Sarah just won at the Asian International Short Film Festival in Korea. Porter is a Theatre at UBC BFA Acting graduate and Film Production alumna.

Several UBC theatre graduates are receiving international attention including: Camyar Chai. Actor, Producer and Director. Chai is the founder and former artistic director of Vancouver’s neworldtheatre. He has performed in 25 theatre productions, produced 14 and directed seven. This year he earned his MFA from UBC and a Jessie award for Outstanding Production for Adrift on the Nile. Chai is currently Executive Director of BC Leave Out Violence (LOVE), a program that empowers youth against peer violence. He is also the librettist for Elijah’s Kite, an opera for young people, which premiered in New York City in 2006 and is one of only a handful of Canadian operas to do so. The opera subsequently had its Canadian premiere in Rideau Hall in the presence of the Governor General of Canada. Zaib Shaikh. Actor and Theatre Producer. Plays the role of Iman on CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie which is now syndicated in 10 countries. A theatre graduate of UBC, Shaikh is an accomplished actor and theatre producer with many film and television credits to his name and works with the Canadian Stage, National Arts Centre, Globe Theatre, Grand Theatre and the Stratford Festival. Camille Sullivan. Actor. Sullivan graduated with a BFA from UBC’s acting program, was a character in Da Vinci’s Inquest and is currently performing in CBC’s Intelligence.