Nadia Ross, artistic director of the internationally acclaimed interdisciplinary indie theatre company STO Union, has been named the winner of the 2016 Siminovitch Prize – and the $100,000 that comes along with it.
"I'm so grateful and honoured," Ross said over the phone from her cabin north of Wakefield, Que. "My hope is that this win will put a light on the independent companies and independent artists across the country."
The Siminovitch, the richest prize in Canadian theatre, is awarded on a three-year cycle to directors, playwrights and designers – and Ross's win in a year dedicated to direction is certainly an encouraging one for Canadian theatre artists whose practice doesn't neatly fall into those categories, or, indeed, the mainstream definition of "theatre."
What Happened to the Seeker, Ross's latest show with STO Union which premiered at the Festival TransAmériques in Montreal in 2015, looked back at the 50 years of her life through a combination of art installation, video (made with puppets) and live performance.
"If what Nadia Ross does isn't theatre, then give me less theatre – and more of this stuff, whatever you want to call it," theatre critic Stephen Hunt wrote in The Calgary Herald, reviewing the show on tour at the Theatre Junction Grand.
"It's difficult to define what I do, but that's what makes the work lean toward being more innovative," says Ross, who beat out four other mid-career Siminovitch nominees. "Most of the time people will say you're an actress, a writer, a producer – and avoid the word director … At the end of the day, that's what I am."
Originally from the Outaouais, Ross studied drama at the University of Toronto in the 1980s, where she was encouraged by the director at the time, Pia Kleber, to focus on direction and to travel to East Berlin.
Returning to Toronto in the 1990s, Ross found herself apart from the major theatrical institutions – and collaborated instead with independent artists such as playwright Daniel MacIvor and director Daniel Brooks (who would later go on to win their own Siminovitch prizes) before founding her own company, STO Union, whose initials don't stand for anything.
In 1994, STO premiered its first work, The Alistair Trilogy, a collaboration between Ross and Diane Cave created out of pieces of Aeschylus's Oresteia, Georg Buchner's Woyzeck and Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine. It won the Chalmers Awards.
But funding cuts to the Ontario Arts Council in the Mike Harris years hit independent artists such as Ross the hardest – and she relocated from Toronto back to the area of Quebec across the river from Ottawa where she had grown up.
In the 2000s, Ross found new life through touring internationally – and STO Union's postdramatic work has at times been better known outside of Canada than within it. Shows such as Recent Experiences (created with Jacob Wren in 2000), Revolutions in Therapy (also with Wren, in 2004) and 7 Important Things (created with George Acheson, 2007) toured from Germany and the Netherlands to Australia and China.
As a customary part of winning the 16-year-old Siminovitch Prize, Ross has selected two younger artists to split $25,000 from the prize money: Sarah Conn, an Ottawa-based artist who is also the artistic producer at STO Union; and Shaista Latif, a Toronto-based creator whose play Graceful Rebellions has been seen at SummerWorks Festival in Toronto and Halifax's Queer Acts Festival.
"What keeps growing in me is the desire to hand down to the next generation the skills, the knowledge, I have," Ross said prior to being presented with the Siminovitch on Friday at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.