Last year I saw posts from friends and colleagues about a tweet from Michael Redhill. After winning the 2017 Giller Prize for his novel Bellevue Square, Michael posted a picture of his bank statement. The Giller comes with a $100,000 cheque, and after depositing the prize money his account balance was $100,411.46. Some of my peers wrote how happy this made them, how this prize had changed the life of a brilliant hard-working artist. But all I could see was the remaining $411.46, and the thought of hundreds of other brilliant hard-working artists who will never win that prize. This made me question the entire concept of awards, and reflect on my own personal experience. Why don't we invest this money into the sector as a whole instead of handing a single artist a massive cheque?
Most of my career has been spent working on other people's ideas, perspectives, and stories. I've built a career on directing the development of new work. As more or less of a dramaturge. If you don’t know what a dramaturge is, I like to translate it to: "Being in the room while brilliant people make brilliant things." It is the greatest privilege of my life. But it also makes me feel like a fraud. An impostor. And this impostor syndrome can play in my head ad nauseam.
While these symptoms are not caused by the performing arts industry itself, I do think they play a part. Even the notion of calling this an industry is a contributing factor. If the performing arts is indeed an industry, then it is one that is fraught with financial barriers (job security, housing stability, etc.), making it inaccessible for many, if not most. A recent university study suggests that Australian arts workers experience symptoms of anxiety ten times higher than that of the general population, and depression symptoms five times higher. Unless these findings are directly correlated to the aesthetics of toilet water draining counter-clockwise, it's not a huge leap to assume that the Canadian arts sector is in a similar position.
I think this is why we lean so heavily on awards & prizes: if we can't provide steady income, we need to feel like we're rewarding individuals for their hard work. But I don't think that awarding the occasional cash prize or statuette helps the industry as a whole. If anything I'm afraid it puts a dangling carrot in front of our eyes.
And yet I've wanted one. An award. I've wanted one so badly.
I used to think that the cure for my "impostor syndrome" was a small bit of recognition. That an award would validate my work. That confidence could be found around the base of a trophy. In the early years of my career, I obsessed over awards: the Governor General's Award, the Dora Awards, the Jessies, etc. And every year during the Dora nominations announcement, I would glue myself to my Twitter feed to see if I personally earned that recognition, only to be inevitably disappointed. To be reminded that I'm not a real artist. Because if real artists don't get paid, they at least win trophies, right?
And then in 2015, I was nominated for the GG, along side my co-writer Tara Grammy, for our play Mahmoud. It was the most validating experience of my career. We were in the running for a $25,000 prize. I was going to be able to pay off my student loans! I was ecstatic. Giddy. I felt like I was on some sort of drug. Each "congratulations" was like a bump of cocaine. I bounced from friend to friend, acquaintance to acquaintance, looking for my next fix.
But this dizzying, intoxicating experience came to an end, and the self-doubt crept back in. Only this time ten-times stronger. Ten-times more dangerous. I spun into a multi-week depression mixed with suicidal tendencies. I avoided groups of people. I spent hours alone in the dark of my room. I pushed away my family and friends. I grew resentful of my partner. And then, after countless suicidal thoughts, I was informed by the Canada Council that we did not win the award. I was relieved.
The frequency of my suicidal ideation has increased since that time. Which is not the fault of the award, the jury, or the Canada Council. But, that doesn't mean that the very mention of awards shows doesn’t give me swirling anxiety headaches.
Thousands of artists are still in debt; are still infrequently paid for their work; are still at the mercy of an ever-inflating housing market. Awards do not change this. So what exactly are we celebrating?
Tonight, Pandemic Theatre is nominated for six Dora awards. My dearest friend (and colleague here at Pandemic), Jivesh Parasram, is nominated for Outstanding New Play, for a work I helped him create with Graham Isador. And I will be at the Doras to cheer him on, along with many of my friends and colleagues nominated tonight. I'm going to try to treat it like a celebration; if not of the industry, then of my friends. But while I’m there I'm going to take it as an opportunity to engage in critical conversations with those I've worked with in the past, and to start new conversations with those I will work with in the future.
And if you're nominated tonight (or if you win), and you're feeling more complex emotions than just joy, I'll be lurking around a cheese plate somewhere, drinking an over-priced glass of Ontario wine... if you need a break from the "congratulations".
-Tom Arthur Davis