Marcus Youssef is indisputably a winner, not a loser: The Vancouver-based playwright and artistic director of Neworld Theatre, whose works include the internationally lauded show Winners and Losers, has been named the 2017 recipient of the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize.
"I'm left feeling atypically speechless – it's extraordinary," said Youssef, speaking to The Globe and Mail ahead of the official announcement on Monday night. "Playwright Hiro Kanagawa just won the Governor General's Award [for his play Indian Arm], so it does feel like Vancouver's brown guys are taking over."
The Siminovitch Prize, the richest in Canadian theatre, now in its 17th year, is given out on a three-year cycle to a mid-career director, designer or playwright – and Youssef's win in the playwriting category is notable because, unlike previous recipients such as Joan MacLeod or Daniel MacIvor, he is perhaps best known for plays that are collaborations.
That's the case with Winners and Losers, a provocative, partially improvised performance that toured Canada, Europe and had a run off-Broadway at Soho Rep in 2015, in which Youssef and co-creator James Long debated whether various people, places and things were winners or losers, including themselves.
For King Arthur's Night (which was seen at this year's Luminato Festival and will be mounted in Vancouver in early 2018), Youssef worked again with Long – and two other frequent collaborators Niall McNeil, an actor with Down syndrome; and Veda Hille, an indie musician turned theatre composer.
Then, there are Youssef's satirical "war on terror" comedies with Guillermo Verdecchia and Camyar Chai (The Aventures of Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil) – and his award-winning Gulf War drama with Verdecchia alone (1995's A Line in the Sand, updated last year for an acclaimed revival at Toronto's Factory Theatre).
In other words, Youssef was an "inclusive" playwright long before that was the buzzword at theatres big and small. "A fundamental part of my playwriting practice is working with a really wide variety of creators," he says. "Having that very idiosyncratic, very particular and honestly highly personal practice or obsession recognized and honoured in this way is very meaningful to me."
Each Siminovitch winner selects a protégé to receive $25,000 of the prize money – and Youssef has chosen Christine Quintana, an up-and-coming playwright whom he first met when she was hired to work in marketing and administration at Neworld in her early 20s.
Quintana, now the Urjo Kareda Emerging Artist resident at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, has since written a number of well-received shows.
They include Stationary: A Recession-Era Musical, which won a Jessie Richardson Award in 2015 and toured to Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont; and the theatre for young audiences play Selfie, which will be next produced at the Young People's Theatre in Toronto in 2018.
"We quickly connected around writing, and I quickly got really excited about supporting her then-nascent playwriting practice," Youssef says.
"Now, I send her things I write to get feedback on. … She is one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life."
Youssef, who has two children of university age with his wife, a Grade 7 teacher, says the prize money will perhaps allow him to take a sabbatical from the time-consuming job of running Neworld Theatre and "buy me time to write – which is a precious, precious commodity."
"I've got a list of things that I want to try to work on – I tend to right now go down the commission route a fair bit, and this will offer me the opportunity to investigate a couple of other projects," he says.
Some of those might even be solo-penned works such as Jabber – Youssef's play for youth about a hijab-wearing teenager currently touring British Columbia (and which will have its German premiere next year).
The Vancouverite was nominated alongside playwrights Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Hannah Moscovitch and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard – and will be celebrated on Monday night in a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Founded in 2000, the Prize is named after scientist Lou Siminovitch and his late wife, playwright Elinore Siminovitch.