For Anick La Bissonnière, the fourth time was the charm. After being a finalist in 2006, 2009 and 2012, the Montreal designer finally walked away the winner of the Siminovitch Prize in theatre on Sunday night in Toronto.
"Everyone is saying that, 'Finally,'" La Bissonnière said in a phone interview ahead of the announcement. "I felt I had won already by just being nominated – it's not nothing to see one's work underlined four times in a row."
Of course, actually winning the Siminovitch – which is given out on a three-year cycle to directors, playwrights and designers – also means going home with a $100,000 prize, the richest in Canadian theatre. Of that, La Bissonnière selected a protégé to receive a quarter of the money: Montreal's Marilène Bastien, 15 years her junior, who designed the costumes for a circus show she worked on this past summer called Ruelle. "She is getting to her 10th year of experience and I felt it was good moment for her to get a pat on the back," La Bissonnière said, having now switched to her impeccable English.
Instead of using her $75,000 to "pay the rent," La Bissonnière wants to use it for a dream project – most likely, to publish a book on her philosophy of "poetic space" that would also be an illustrated retrospective of her career working with such directors as André Brassard, Matthew Jocelyn and past Siminovitch Prize-recipient Brigitte Haentjens. The 49-year-old set designer has a huge collection of drawings and photographs from the two decades she was worked in design, carefully archived as she was taught to do during her training in architecture.
Originally from Montreal, La Bissonnière first began designing sets as a sideline from her day job. Two cold calls from directors at crucial moments in her career lured her away from the architecture of buildings to the architecture of poetic space – both, coincidentally, invitations to design plays about famous historical figures facing off.
In 1992, director Jean Asselin was mounting Jean-François Prévand's Voltaire Rousseau – a play about an imagined meeting between the two French philosophers – at the feminist Montreal theatre company Espace Go without a single woman in the creative team. He invited acquaintance La Bissonnière to propose a design – and she went all out, coming up with a room for this encounter that was also a miniature city, every piece of furniture being a different building. It so impressed Asselin that she became his go-to designer for many years after that.
In 1999, La Bissonnière was spending most of her time working at an architecture firm – one devoted to designing theatres, in fact – when she got a call out of the blue from Haentjens, artistic director of theatre company Sybillines, asking her to design the set for a play about an encounter between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. The designer agreed before she realized Marie Stuart (by Italian playwright Dacia Maraini) was to star two of Quebec's greatest actresses – Anne-Marie Cadieux and Pascale Montpetit – at Montreal's Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. "I was thinking it would be at a small, tiny theatre somewhere – but the TNM, it's the most prestigious and largest stage in Montreal," La Bissonnière recalls. "Brigitte is so courageous and takes risk – and it was a coup de foudre between us."
La Bissonnière and Haentjens – now artistic director of French theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa – have collaborated a dozen times since on productions such as Molly Bloom, an adaptation of Ulysses, L'Opéra de quat'sous (The Threepenny Opera), and, most recently, a Richard III that played at both the TNM and the NAC.
And, in between, La Bissonnière has had notable achievements with other directors as well. With Canadian Stage's artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, she designed an opera in Argentina that won her a critic's prize earlier this year – and her work has been seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Festival d'Avignon in France.
Bob White, the jury chair of this year's Siminovitch Prize, described La Bissonnière's work as "epic, eye-popping environments that manage to remain intimate, subtle and totally actor-friendly." He added: "Clean lines, a dynamic use of negative space and a flair for the bold gesture make La Bissonnière's work unique and groundbreaking."