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Vancouverite nets top theatre prize

Playwright Marcus Youssef wins $100K prize

Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef (left), artistic director of Neworld Theatre, won Canada's top theatre award, the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize, on Nov. 6. In this photograph, he works with long-time collaborator Niall McNeil on their new play King Arthur's Night at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity during Youssef's 2016-17 Senior Playwright-in-Residency there.

Courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef (left), artistic director of Neworld Theatre, won Canada's top theatre award, the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize, on Nov. 6. In this photograph, he works with long-time collaborator Niall McNeil on their new play King Arthur's Night at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity during Youssef's 2016-17 Senior Playwright-in-Residency there.

Anyone who won a no-strings-attached $100,000 thanks to their skills would likely get some performance anxiety.

But even if those skills revolve around the stage, it's little different according to the Vancouver playwright who just won the country's highest theatre honour.

"It’s overwhelming," Marcus Youssef said in a phone interview after winning the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre. "It’s the biggest deal in Canadian theatre, and it’s a crazy amount — a mind-numbing amount of money.

"The sense of responsibility for it, or 'Oh my God, now what do I have to do?!' — I had just the tiniest glimpse of that feeling over the last week."

The artistic director of Neworld Theatre said the massive prize, only awarded to a playwright every three years, is a rare chance in the arts world to have total freedom not tied to grant applications or commissions.

"Doing a sabbatical mid-career is a luxury almonst no one gets to elevate their work to the next level," the 48-year-old told Metro in a phone interview. "It's an opportunity (most artists) wouldn't have in another way."

The Siminovitch Prize is given to a "mid-career … acknowledged leader in the theatre," according to a National Arts Centre (NAC) announcement Nov. 6, "and whose work is transformative and influential."

Named for Montreal-born acclaimed socialist playwright Elinore Siminovitch and her husband, Toronto genetics pioneer Dr. Louis Siminovitch, the award especially inspired Youssef.

"To win a prize of this size named after socialists — a world-renowned geneticist and a radical feminist playwright — I’m hugely honoured," he said. "It’s a great opportunity to have the freedom to go for something big."

An "exciting" responsibility with the Siminovitch Prize, he explained, is its winner must select an artistic "protege" for one-quarter of the funds. Youssef chose University of B.C. acting graduate and playwright Christine Quintana, co-artistic director of Delinquent Theatre.

"She's an exciting emerging playwright I've worked really closely with," Youssef explained. "She started working in close proximity to me soon after theatre school and is political, smart and unbelievably driven."

In a statement, Quintana said she hoped to "repay the tremendous generosity" she's received so far in her career, adding: “I haven't quite wrapped my brain around what it means to be a Siminovitch protégée."

Youssef is currently working on King Arthur's Night, his second play co-written with veteran B.C. actor Niall McNeil, who lives with Down Syndrome and previously co-wrote the play Peter Panties. Youssef said Vancouverites can catch the "huge, wild project" this January.

Youssef's works include Winners and Losers and How Has My Love Affected You? The NAC described his plays as "some of Canada’s best-known theatrical investigations of otherness and difference."

"Making a living as an artist, which I’m fortunate to be able to do, is a challenge," he said. "The battle is always how to create time to write where you’re not chasing money.

"This (award) will allow me to do that. The best challenge I now have over the next few months is to figure out how."

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