By Victoria Ahearn
TORONTO — Victoria-based playwright Joan MacLeod is making plans to do something she never thought she’d be able to do in her working career again: focus almost exclusively on her stage writing.
For over a decade now, the 57-year-old has found her scribbling time steadily diminishing as she teaches full-time at the University of Victoria’s department of writing. She also writes poetry, prose and for TV, and has a 15-year-old daughter.
On Monday, MacLeod’s career shifted direction, though, when she won the $100,000 Elinore & Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre —$75,000 of which goes to her and $25,000 of which goes to a protege of her choice, Toronto-based Anusree Roy.
“It’s huge,” MacLeod said of the win. “It means I can step down from teaching full-time. I’m not ready to quit my job altogether but I’ll just have to teach one semester a year now instead of teaching for eight months a year.”
“It just gives me the gift of time,” she added. “It allows me to write and create at my own pace. It just changes the pace of my family’s life.
“This just allows me to slow down a little bit and concentrate on being a writer again, and that feels thrilling.”
MacLeod was up against five other finalists for the 11th annual honour: Robert Chafe (Newfoundland), Jasmine Dube (Quebec), Greg MacArthur (Alberta/Quebec), Mansel Robinson (Saskatchewan) and Larry Tremblay (Quebec).
Jury chair Maureen Labonte said MacLeod is masterful storyteller with a “unique voice” that has had an impact on “audiences in Canada and beyond.”
“Joan is a master of expressing the profoundest human emotions, putting to paper the vulnerability, the compassion, the weaknesses and strengths of the human spirit,” Labonte said in a statement.
“Moreover, as a teacher, mentor, and role model, she has no doubt inspired a generation of new Canadian theatre artists.”
Born and raised in North Vancouver, MacLeod got her start as a playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre before returning to settle in British Columbia.
Many of her plays are inspired by real events. “Jewel,” for instance, is about the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig east of St. John’s, N.L., while “The Shape of a Girl” is loosely based on the killing of 14-year-old Reena Virk of Victoria, B.C.
“I guess what I’m best at doing is making characters feel true and that’s being careful with language, using detailed language,” said MacLeod.
“That’s the first thing that drew me to the theatre was language, so I guess that’s part of my voice and then part of my own politics kind of with the stage is about giving voice to people who don’t usually have a voice.”
MacLeod’s work has been translated into eight languages. She’s also won numerous honours, including the Governor General’s Award and a Dora Mavor Moore Award.
“I’m really lucky compared to a lot of playwrights in that I saved royalty money and scraped things together and was able to buy a little house in my mid-40s,” said MacLeod.
Still, she admitted she’s also experienced hard times, and there was a time when she wondered whether she would be able to continue writing for the stage.
“I’m in my mid-50s and playwrights kind of hit the dust before that time in their life a lot of the time because it is hard, or you get a gig in TV or you get a gig like I did teaching and give up on writing for the stage,” she said.