Gillian Gallow has designed close to ninety productions across Canada from new plays to opera, in small independent theatres to the largest stages in the country. Most notably she designed costumes for the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere of Hadrian in 2018 and for Louis Riel in 2017. She has designed set and costumes at The Shaw Festival for five seasons and has done four productions with The Stratford Festival. Her work has also been seen at Soulpepper, Canadian Stage, The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, The Citadel, Theatre Calgary, and The National Arts Centre, to name a few. Gillian is a graduate of York University and has been nominated for eight Dora Mavor Moore awards, winning four. Across Canada, Gillian’s designs have been nominated for Evie Awards, Betty Awards, Sterling Awards, the Capital Critics’ Awards, and she is the 2018 recipient of the Virginia and Myrtle Cooper Award in Costume Design.
The power of set and costume design exists in its silence. They are the haunted, charged landscape on a stage; the skin of a character crawled into by an actor. Design is the visual narrative that reaches an audience’s rational mind and irrational heart. The subliminal language capable of evoking intense emotion, even challenging our cultural biases. As much as design should be daring, bold and opinionated, so too must designers create with courage, curiosity, and a point of view.
But what are the elements that make a great design, that propel an artistic journey, that enrich an artistic practice? Much like the ephemerality of theatre, these answers can seem equally intangible. But as I consider the path which has led me to this moment, these answers become blindingly clear.
When I was a twenty-five-year-old design assistant at Stratford, I mentioned to Miles Potter I didn’t get a design gig in Toronto because I was told I didn’t have enough experience. He immediately asked me to design costumes for a mainstage production he was directing at The Grand Theatre in London. As an emerging designer, Peter Hinton took a chance, hiring me to design the set and costumes for an adaptation of King Lear he was directing at the National Arts Centre. What Miles and Peter saw was my potential, and they gave me an opportunity that was beyond my experience. As a young designer these votes of confidence were personally, and artistically, transformative. Generosity of spirit can change the life of a young artist.
These relationships are essential in building the foundation of an artistic journey. Theatre is created through collaboration – and the sacred trust we build together elicits discovery, experimentation, and risk. The carpenters, scenic artists, prop masters, cutters, wig builders and the myriad of specialized artists who bring a designer’s ideas to reality, are the un-celebrated, seldom recognized collaborators designers rely on. My designs would be nothing without their artistry and excellence.
Most importantly, artistry is enriched by the love of those around us. My father, a banker, never questioned my choice to become an artist. Though he may have been worried about my ability to make ends meet, he never doubted my ability to persevere. My mother, took me to see theatre as a child, sewed the first costumes I designed in high school, stayed up with me into the wee hours of the morning to make a dress out of Tyvek for a show I wasn’t paid for. My life-partner and vital collaborator Christopher Morris, supports me during my long hours of work, listening to my crazy ramblings as I try to solve the puzzle of a new design. My seven-year-old daughter, Eileen, who is full of awe and wonder, reminds me of the magic and joy of our world. Love is a blessing. And through love and support, artists are made, artistic expression is deepened.
I am honoured to be this year’s Laureate for the Siminovitch Prize. Given the chance as a mid-career designer to take stock, and think about what’s important to me, is a life-changing gift that’s value is beyond monetization. This prize is an investment in Canadian Theatre, in an art that’s ephemeral. I promise to live up to the spirit of this award, to always pursue the intangible, embrace the trajectory of an idea, to innovate.
I’m proud to stand side-by-side with the other finalists – Linda Brunelle, Nancy Bryant and Michelle Ramsay, designers who continually test the limits of their craft, and push against the boundaries of design. They inspire me. I’m a better designer because of them. And I am humbled by Peter Hinton, who graciously nominated me for this award. Thank you, Peter, for a decade’s worth of collaboration. You have expanded the capacity of my practice and affirmed my belief in the transformative power of theatre in society.
I’ve been given the honour to choose two Protégés who embody the spirit of this prize. Joshua Quinlan and Joyce Padua are designers who exhibit incredible potential. Joshua’s set designs are bold and elegant. Joyce’s costumes are daring and artistic. Most importantly, their openness, curiosity, and collaborative spirit, make them the bright future of our industry. To all directors, artistic directors, donors, and philanthropists: continue to support emerging designers, they’re worth it.
I love, and am equally confounded by, the intensity of our obsession to create theatre, hour after hour, day after day when we know full well that what we labour over will disappear. The recent absence of theatre has made me realize how much I cherish this comradery. I look ahead, and see brightness; in the collaborations to come, the audiences who are joining us once again. To be a designer at this time, in the re-awakening of our world, is a gift.
Thank you for this honour. It means the world to me.