Local playwright Marcus Youssef has just won Canada's richest and most prestigious theatre award.
The Neworld Theatre artistic director has been named the recipient of the 2017 Siminovitch Prize, an award of $100,000, at a ceremony today at the National Arts Centre.
As part of the award, Vancouver theatre artist and Deliquent Theatre co-artistic director Christine Quintana, whom he has chosen as his protégée, will receive $25,000 out of the total amount.
Youssef is best known for writing and cowriting Winners and Losers (one of Neworld's longest-running and most successful pieces), King Arthur’s Night, Leftovers, How Has My Love Affected You?, Ali & Ali, Chloe’s Choice, Everyone, Adrift, Peter Panties, Jabber, and A Line in the Sand.
He had made it onto this year’s shortlist, alongside Evelyne de la Chenelière, Hannah Moscovitch (whose acclaimed Little One was produced by Vancouver's Alley Theatre here in 2015), and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard.
“The jury was thrilled by the quality of the vast majority of this year’s nominations,” said jury chair Bob White in the press announcement today. “The final deliberations were intense, but in awarding the Prize to Marcus Youssef, we were absolutely delighted to be able to celebrate a mid-career artist whose work was already of the highest calibre and was, in fact, changing the face of Canadian theatre.”
White is referring to the fact that Youssef has often made diversity and the ideas of difference and diversity themes in his work. Born in Montreal to Egyptian parents, he once told the Straight that telling stories about the experiences of diverse communities was "critically important to me in a culture driven...hugely by profit and the imperative of global capitalism. Hearing those stories in a really intentional, curated way that’s connected to real communities is very important—and making people laugh, which we do sometimes.”
Youssef graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada and later got his Masters in Fine Arts from UBC. His works have nabbed numerous Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards and Dora Mavor Moore Awards, and they've been performed across North America, Australia, and Europe. He has been a playwright-in-residence at the Banff Centre, the National Theatre School, Neworld, and Touchstone Theatre.
In a statement today, Youssef had this to say about the award: “The Siminovitch Prize is an extraordinary commitment to Canadian theatre and theatre artists. There is simply no other award like it, in terms of prestige and also the practical difference it can make for nominees and winner. This is especially critical because it honours artists in midlife, when I think many of us begin to wonder about our choice to become artists in the first place and about what may happen to us and our families as we age. The Siminovitch Prize is a bold, powerful antidote to these pressures. It honours the idea that it might make sense for us to dare to think it is legitimate to be working artists through our whole lives. This is the sign of a mature culture. As the tiny neighbours of the world’s dominant power, I believe we must be unafraid to mythologize ourselves, fiercely and unapologetically. This is precisely what the Siminovitch Prize permits us to do.”
Amid his works, Winners and Losers showed how much he loves to play with form. Created with his friend, James Long, it's essentially an improv game in which they name things and people and debate whether, from a personal perspective, these things are winners or losers--farmers’ markets, lululemon, Pamela Anderson, the Occupy movement, whatever. It premiered at at Gateway Theatre in 2012 in a coproduction with Neworld, Theatre Replacement and Crow's Theatre, then toured to Britain and Ireland. The play was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 2015. On its New York stop, the Village Voice called Winners and Losers a "sly, utterly successful production".
The Adventures of Ali and Ali and the Axes of Evil, written by Youssef, Guillermo Verdecchia, and Camyar Chai, hit the stage in 2004 and announced Youssef as part of a team willing to send up cultural misrepresentation in the wake of 9-11. In it, two guys named Ali take over a Canadian theatre, with Youssef playing Coptic Christian Ali Ababwa. Their satire made chaotic fun of both Middle Eastern stereotypes and of pretentious western liberalism.
In 2013, Youssef debuted a much more personal work: How Has My Love Affected You? featured his teenage son, Zak, and journals his mother left to him before her death. (It was at the Arts Club Theatre's Revue Stage.)
The Siminovitch Prize alternately celebrates a professional director, playwright, or designer over a three-year cycle, recognizing artists who are acknowledged leaders in the theatre and whose work is transformative and influential. Past laureates include celebrated playwrights Olivier Choinière in 2014, Joan MacLeod in 2011, Daniel MacIvor in 2008, John Mighton in 2005, and Carole Fréchette in 2002
In the press statement, Quintana also expressed her gratitude: “I haven't quite wrapped my brain around what it means to be a Siminovitch protégée, but I know this - I hope to repay the tremendous generosity I've received through my contributions to the arts community in Canada, both as a theatre artist and as a dedicated supporter of the nation's artists.”
Vancouver's Quintana is the Urjo Kareda Emerging Artist Resident at Toronto's prestigious Tarragon Theatre. Her play Selfie will have its English-language premiere at YPT in April of 2018. (It was originally commissioned by Théâtre la Seizième here, and won the Sydney Risk Prize for Outstanding Script by an Emerging Playwright). Her Stationary: A Recession-Era Musical nabbed a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for Outstanding Musical in the small-theatre category; she also was producer and performer on that show. And her Never The Last, recently seen at Vancouver's rEvolver Theatre Festival, was created with Molly MacKinnon (and produced by Delinquent Theatre in association with Electric Company Theatre).More