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Joan MacLeod Speech

Joan MacLeod, Recipient of the Siminovitch Prize for Playwrighting, 2011

The following acceptance speech was made by Joan MacLeod at the 2011 Siminovitch Prize in theatre honouring playwrights on November 7, 2011.

Thank you Dr. Siminovitch . Thank you to the Siminovitch family and to the founders of this beautiful, life-changing award. Thank you to the BMO Financial Group who sponsors the award and organized this evening and who clearly didn’t check my very short record of employment at BMO Whitehorse in 1977, when I was your friendly and incompetent receptionist.

I am so honoured to be this year’s recipient, to come back to this city that I love, where I came of age as a playwright, to have this opportunity to say thank you to the good people who made this award possible and to my community, my big borderless community that extends all the way to Vancouver Island. To the jury — Yvette Nolan, Carole Fréchette, Craig Holzschuh, Scott Burke, Vanessa Porteous and the jury chair Maureen Labonte – thank you for your hard work, for selecting a short list of remarkable artists. I have the good fortune to have a rich relationship with many theatres across the country – fabulous theatres where I return again and again. ATP, the Belfry, the Arts Club, the Vancouver Playhouse and Green Thumb to name but a few. But it feels entirely right that this nomination came from the Tarragon. Even though I live three thousand miles away it is still my home. Thank you Richard Rose – who I want to work with again and again — and my dear friends who wrote letters in support of the nomination, and in particular to my former student – playwright Sally Stubbs who I’m so pleased is here with us tonight.

I always wanted to be a writer. My parents gave me lined paper for Christmas and birthdays and dozens and dozens of notebooks. I survived high school, probably like a lot of people did, by writing reams and reams of terrible poetry, by reading profusely and listening to Joni Mitchell as much as was humanly possible. Thank you Joni Mitchell. Thank you Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. You were my introduction to great writing and you carried me right through my adolescence on your strong and splendid backs. I studied Creative Writing at UVIC and UBC and was blessed with many great teachers. I first started publishing with poetry and went to The Banff Centre as a poet in the mid-eighties and two important things happened.

I asked an actor from the playwrights colony if she could read a poem of mine at a public reading. So for the first time I was in an audience and watching an actor lift my words off the page and transform them into something beautiful. I was astounded. I didn’t know then that actors do that all the time – that they are in the business of making writers look good. The second event took place in the third floor lounge of Lloyd Hall when Alan Williams, the brilliant monologist, performed The Cockroach Triology for us one magical and snowy evening in June. I wasn’t quite thirty and I had been to the theatre twice in my life. After watching Alan I understood with absolute certainty that I was supposed to be a playwright. And within a year I had moved to Toronto and become part of the playwrights unit at Tarragon.

Flukey. I guess. But here’s what I know for certain. That I wouldn’t be here tonight if I hadn’t gone to Banff, if funding for places like Banff didn’t exist. And Banff is there because governments, corporations and individuals, just like so many of you in this room tonight, value art and understand that sometimes the creation of art can’t exist without a hand. More than twenty-five years after that snowy night in June, with ten plays and a libretto behind me, significant portions of all those scripts were written at the Banff Centre – and most of them at the Playwrights Colony. Thank you — I am your most grateful genre-swapping participant. I truly don’t know how to write for the stage unless I can look out the window, at some point in the process, and lock eyes with an elk.

So I discovered theatre in Banff but I went to theatre school – or at least my version of it — at the Tarragon. I started work on my first full length play in the playwrights unit. I went to first reads, dress rehearsals, opening nights of all the plays at Tarragon. I went to every pay-what-you-can in the city. I lived and breathed theatre. I started understanding what directors and designers do, what actors do – and how we really are all in this together; the script is simply the start of something. On a December afternoon, after I had just completed the first act of my play Toronto Mississippi, artistic director Urjo Kareda – who I was still a little scared of — called me into his office. He told me that he wanted to open the season with my new play. And then he told me he was going to find the grant money to keep me writing plays and offered me a residency in his theatre. I stayed for seven years and during that time premiered four works there. Urjo became my dear friend – and his family became my friends — and unquestionably he is my most important mentor. Thank you Urjo.

I met and worked with extraordinary people during that time and I am here because of it. Many friendships have endured – my dear Don Hannah and Ken Garnhum, Leslie Toy and Alan Williams. Bill Gaston – 30 years now of reading one another’s first drafts. Many more of you are in this room tonight or on the road working, or back home in BC – you know who you are. This year’s award also has a focus on work that was produced in the past decade. So I want to thank in particular the fabulous Jennys — Jenny Young and Jenny Patterson – Shape of a Girl – and the supremely gifted Nicola Lipman – Another Home Invasion — and the ATP-Green-Thumb-Tarragon connection that resulted in those beautiful productions. And to Canstage who produced Homechild with a remarkable cast under Martha Henry’s direction — and at Iris Turcott’s insistence – Iris who helped so much with the script. Thank you.

Last year, Daniel MacIvor, the last playwright to receive the Siminovitch Award – besides Ronnie — was in Victoria working when I was on sabbatical. For two months we walked our dogs together every morning for hours sometimes and got to know each other again and formed a friendship that endured even when my dog beat up his dog over a carrot. And Daniel talked to me about this award, this night, the great meaning that it had for him and how that had lingered. I was so happy for Danny. And I was sick with envy too of course. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are remarkable writers across this country, hard working artful souls who have a strong body of work and somehow they fly under the radar. I really am fortunate to be here. But back to Daniel. I know that he wrote about theatre as family in his speech and, well, it is just that. Not all writers seek community. But I did. And I found it when I found the theatre. Family.

So. Let me tell you about my family. My parents, Fred and Muriel MacLeod, were from neighbouring farms in Glengarry County in eastern Ontario. Like me they married and had children late in life. My mother went to Normal School and began teaching in rural schools in Ontario when she was seventeen and then in North Vancouver where my folks raised my brother Doug and I. My mum was so proud to be a teacher. It would’ve meant so much to her that this award comes from not only a renowned scientist but a remarkable educator and mentor as well in Dr. Siminovitch. My father was a postal worker. And a brilliant story teller. He was also really funny. He mailed jokes in to the Readers Digest that were much funnier than the ones they actually published. As a senior citizen he took courses in Creative Writing at the local community centre and wrote a memoir that I typed and edited. My parents brought their rural values with them when they moved to the city – they were neighbourly, they were deeply involved in their church, they were frugal but they knew how to have a really good time. My gosh – how they would have loved this night. They taught my brother and I, by example, to stand up for what is right and to lend a hand to those who need it. We watched hockey not plays but we also read newspapers, argued politics – they kept up with things – these old-fashioned parents of mine were surprisingly current and political in a profoundly, spectacularly ungroovy way. From my very first play at the Edmonton Fringe when they showed up, unannounced, in their tent trailer, they supported me. If there really is humanity or tenderness or compassion in my work it is because of my family. It is because I was raised with such love.

So. My husband Bill is with me tonight. Bill who never hesitates, who never says anything but Yes – I’ll look after things — when I say I’d like to go to Banff again or actually this one rehearses in Toronto or Vancouver or always somewhere that isn’t home. And our daughter Ana, nearly sixteen years old. I’m so glad you’re here, our beautiful girl. We are so proud of you. I know what it was like to have a mother who loved her work; for the child left at home it’s not always easy. That we three are a family means everything to me. And this award is going to change our lives as a family.

I’m a professor in the Writing Department at UVIC with remarkable colleagues and gifted, extraordinary students. But for well over a decade now my time to write has been steadily diminishing. The Siminovitch Award changes all that. It will allow me to step down from teaching full time. What a generous and perfect gift. What a great reminder of what drew me to write in the first place; there is joy to be found in creating a piece of writing –and that is something that Elinore Siminovitch seemed to have known intimately. Thank you once more to her extraordinary family, to Dr. Siminovitch and to the founders. The pace of my life and my family’s life is about to change. This award allows me to return me to some vital part of myself. I promise to use it well. Thank you.

So now on to my first duty as tonight’s recipient – and what a splendid duty it is– giving $25,000 to an exceptional young theatre artist. We met last year at the fall residency for playwrights at the Stratford Festival and we come from very different worlds. But as writers we share so much. This young playwright writes from the personal and the political. She gives voice to characters we aren’t used to seeing on our stages, who are all deeply human. She writes with extraordinary craft and beauty — in English – her third language. What a great pleasure to introduce you to the lovely Anusree Roy.

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