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Gabriella Sundar Singh stars as Sonya in The Russian Play. Gillian Gallow, who designed the sets and costumes for this production, is the winner of the year’s Siminovitch prize.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

Gillian Gallow, a set and costume designer who has created striking visual worlds for both large-scale opera productions and small solo shows, has won the 2021 Siminovitch Prize. The richest award in Canadian theatre, it comes with $100,000 to share in part with protégés.

“It was mind-blowing and exciting and shocking,” Gallow says of learning she was the winner a month ago, news she had to keep secret until a virtual ceremony on Thursday night.

“Of course, there’s the financial security it brings, which can’t be understated.”

A mid-career artist with credits from the Shaw Festival to the Canadian Opera Company, Gallow pivoted during the pandemic, like so many in her field, into the film and television industry. She joined the Directors Guild of Canada and started applying her skills to working in art direction.

But well before learning she was even nominated for the Siminovitch, Gallow had already started redirecting her energy back towards theatre.

The pandemic pause gave Gallow, who lives in Toronto with her partner of 20 years – the director and playwright Christopher Morris – and their seven-year-old daughter an opportunity to stop and take stock. Dipping her toes into film and television helped her discover that,

despite the difficulties associated with living “paycheque to paycheque” that come with working in theatre, she finds the collaboration and risk taking in the live art form more artistically satisfying.

Gillian Gallow.Handout

“The beautiful thing is that I realized I love what I do – I love theatre and don’t want to leave,” she says. “I’m not terribly into realism or high realism or creating historically accurate productions.”

A four-time Dora Mavor Moore Award winner, Gallow’s recent work includes the innovative 24-foot treadmill she designed as a set for The Runner, a one-actor thriller set in Israel penned by Morris that will restart a pandemic-interrupted national tour in January at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

Performer Gord Rand spends much of that show directed by inaugural Siminovitch Prize winner Daniel Brooks in motion. “It’s such a unique show in that all the elements are so well integrated – and that I live with the writer,” says Gallow. “There was a constant dialogue on what the design could be for the show even from the early stages of writing.”

On a larger scale, Gallow cites her work with Peter Hinton, the former artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre, as among the most rewarding artistic experiences of her career to date. Her collaborations with Hinton include designing costumes on two productions for the Canadian Opera Company (Harry Somers’ Louis Riel in 2017; Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian in 2018) as well as both set and costume design for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s boundary-pushing remixed melodrama An Octoroon at the Shaw Festival in 2017.

Gallow is particularly proud of her work on An Octoroon, which she says was a challenging production to work on because the script “deals with representation and deals with a lot of cultural and racial issues which I am not a part of.”

The Siminovitch Prize jury, chaired by director Vanessa Porteous, specifically cited the “complex intercultural projects” that Gallow has worked on, for which her collaborators praised her “respect, dedication and care,” in their remarks on her win.

A quarter of the Siminovitch money is earmarked for one or more protégés picked by the winner – and Gallow has selected two early-career artists to share in her good fortune: Joyce Padua, a set and costume designer based in Toronto; and Joshua Quinlan, a set and costume designer based in London, Ont.

Gallow worked with Padua on a couple of independent productions in Toronto in early 2020 – the sci-fi play Marjorie Prime at the Coal Mine Theatre (which ended up being stage legend Martha Henry’s penultimate stage performance); and writer/director Karen Hine’s All the Little Animals I Have Eaten at Nightwood Theatre, which was in rehearsals when the pandemic hit.

Gallow also worked on the set for Stage Kiss and the costumes for Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

“She was with me with it all shut down – and I really love Joyce’s collaborative energy and positivity,” says Gallow. “She’s a gold costume designer with a really unique perspective.”

Quinlan was an associate designer on the touring musical No Change in the Weather, which Gallow designed the set for, and has worked as an assistant set or costume designer for many productions in recent years at the Stratford Festival. “His set work is really exciting to me,” says Gallow. “He seems to have a bold perspective on design.”

It can be hard to make the leap from associate or assistant to lead designer on a theatre production in Canada – and Gallow says her selection of Padua and Quinlan is to help them do so. “My big hope for them is someone takes a chance on them, because that’s what it requires,” she says. “Someone has to go, yeah, I’m willing to invest in you.”

This year, Gallow was on the shortlist for the Siminovitch with Montreal’s Linda Brunelle, Vancouver’s Nancy Bryant and fellow Torontonian Michelle Ramsay. The prize is given out on a three-year cycle to a designer, a director or a playwright. It was created in 2000 to honour Lou and Elinore Siminovitch.

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