It’s the most valuable prize in Canadian theatre, and last year’s winner, Nadia Ross, is its most recent recipient. But with the 2017 winner to be named Nov. 6, it’s been nearly a year now since Ross, a director, took home the Siminovitch Prize and the $100,000 monetary award that comes with it.
Though she’s been swamped in recent months working on two new productions, the 52-year-old has taken some time to reflect on how winning that prestigious award has affected her life and her work.
“To win a prize like that when you’re an artist who is independent is huge,” said Ross, who has been the artistic director for STO Union since 1992.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s unbelievable. We’re so small, and we don’t have the money that the institutions have. And yet we do everything that an institution does, from marketing to creating shows. So, winning a prize like that, for an independent artist, brings it to another world. And the benefit is long-lasting.”
Another benefit to winning the Siminovitch Prize, Ross says, is that it’s helped her to feel more confident especially as an outsider artist. She says it has added some more fuel in the tank, and reduced some insecurities in her work, which she says has made a big difference.
“To me, it felt like the insiders were saying, ‘Yeah, we like you.’ And I’m really touched by that.”
Creating Art and Fueling Her Creative Force
But it hasn’t changed her. She’s still the same hard-working indie artist who prefers a life creating art and fueling her creative force, which is something she touched on during her acceptance speech last year.
“It’s an energy, and it’s like something else takes over,” Ross said. “It’s such a beautiful space to be in. My whole world is centred around that force. Honouring that creative force is a big, big part of my life.
We all have it as children. We go to the woods, we sing, we collect rocks, we make things. By the time we become an adult, usually a lot of it is knocked out of us, or we’ve lost touch with it, so we have to seek it out. ”
It’s certainly a prize that opens doors in many respects.
The award led to job offers for Ross, including teaching jobs, and she was lobbied to run festivals. Many of the opportunities, she says, were tempting, but she turned down most of them.
Winning the Siminovitch prize helped her in making her decisions.
“It forced me to actually recognize who I am as an artist, and not to pretend that I’m something else,” said Ross, who lives in a small community just north of Wakefield, Quebec, right near the Ontario border.
“I’m a small, independent company artist, and I always will be. I’ll always be working the threadbare way. I live out in the world for a reason. I work with found material for a reason. That’s become my style, and I’m not going to change that. That’s just who I am.”
That’s who she’s been as an artist for the last three decades since her days studying drama at the University of Toronto in the 1980s. She founded STO Union in 1992, and the internationally acclaimed indie theatre company premiered its first work in 1994.
“I Just Wasn’t Successful in Canada”
Since then, the company has consistently churned out its unique brand of art and theatre productions. A lot of it, though, has happened outside of Canada.
For a decade, beginning in 2001, STO Union toured internationally including throughout Europe and Australia. “I was successful in that sense, I just wasn’t successful in Canada,” Ross said.
“There seemed to be no place for me, I couldn’t fit anywhere. But now, this [Siminovitch win] says that people who don’t necessarily fit right away into the structures we already have here… let’s look again. Maybe they do have something to offer.
This prize gives me legitimacy, and I think it helps give legitimacy to other independent artists in Canada who are doing really interesting work. That’s what I’m hoping.”
It’s been a very busy year for Ross and STO Union. As it happened, the company was starting a new creation cycle at the time Ross won the Siminovitch Prize last year. In recent months, the group has been busily preparing the launch of two big shows.
“The last three months have been completely nuts,” said Ross. “We’re right at the end of finishing one huge production, so this week and next it’s all hands on deck.”
One of the two major projects, “The Twilight Parade,” features a 70-minute film, all done with hand-made puppets, that tells the stories of the trials and tribulations of living in a small town. Accompanying the film is a live show that features actors voicing over the movie in real time. The voice actors play eight parts each.
Ross wrote the script, which is based on the feedback she received from people in her community.
“It’s kind of this lost zone that nobody really understands,” she said. “Quebec doesn’t really get us, we’re not part of Ontario. So, it’s a bit of a wild west place here.
I put out a call to the community and said, ‘who wants to make a puppet?’ Either of themselves, or of an alter ego, or some character that they see themselves playing. And over 55 people sent in puppets.”
The other major show in the works is a process-based project called P.O.R.N.: Portrait Of Restless Narcissism, in which Ross and Christian Lapointe, a fellow Siminovitch nominee, use what they have on hand to explore the web of porn culture. The artistic duo raise the question: ‘from selfies to food porn, performance to shoe porn, how can one get out of something that is in everything?’
The idea was actually sparked at last year’s Siminovitch gathering.
“We met, and we just got along like gangbusters,” said Ross. It was just one of those meetings that was really special and unique. We said, ‘okay, let’s do something.’ And now we’re running with that. So, I’ve got two big shows coming out in the next three months.”
Then, Ross says, she’ll have a better idea whether her Siminovitch win will translate to bigger audiences and more followers of her work.
“That’s going to really tell the difference,” she said. “Because then they’ll have something to react to that’s new. We’ve put the other shows to bed, so now it’s really about these shows. And I think it’s going to make a big difference.”
One thing Ross has certainly noticed in the last year, besides seeing an increase in successful grant applications, has been a lot of open doors.
“People want to know what I’m doing, as opposed to me going and knocking on the door…’please, can I just come in and show you what I’m doing next?’ Presenters are now saying, ‘when do you want to meet?'”
The Siminovitch Prize in Theatre
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Hosted by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Anne-Marie Cadieux
Todd Devlin is a freelance writer and editor currently based in London, Ontario. He holds an M.A. in Journalism, and enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics, including community news, arts and culture, and sports. When the Winter Olympics came to Canada in 2010, Todd worked as a reporter at the Games.