When asked how it feels to be nominated for the 2022 Siminovitch Prize—Canada’s largest prestigious theatre award, given to mid-career directors, playwrights or designers—Halifax actor-director-instructor Ann-Marie Kerr’s answer flows forth with the immediacy of the moment, but is as eloquent as if it’d been lifted from a script: “When I got the call, I had that ‘shiver down my spine’ sort of feeling… I felt a gush of being seen: That my view of creation and the way I experiment and the way my work is on stage is worth it—is being viewed as something outside of me, as worthy,” she tells me, speaking by phone during a break from teaching theatre at Dalhousie’s Fountain School. “It’s a very prestigious thing,” Kerr says of the $100,000 award, for which she’s the only Atlantic Canadian in the running. “It activated something in me to keep going.”
Her shortlist status is nothing if not well-earned: Kerr started in the theatre world in Toronto in the 1980s, working as an administrative assistant on Bay Street. “We used to fax each other scripts: We'd write them at our jobs, and we would make shit by using fax machines and secretly calling each other. And then at night, we would try to rehearse these things and take them to cabarets—and all that stuff you do in the early years,” she recalls of the era. By her early 30s, she was studying at Paris’s prestigious Ecole Internationale de theatre Jacques Lecoq on a significant scholarship. By the time she landed in Halifax, after a teaching stint at the National Theatre School, she would become a known quantity to every local theatre company, starring in and directing productions from Neptune to 2b theatre. In 2012, she won the inaugural Gina Wilkinson Prize for emerging women directors. (“It does have echoes of the Gina prize for sure,” Kerr says of her Siminovitch nomination.)
In my tenure as Arts Editor at The Coast, I’ve watched Kerr own a stage and hypnotize an audience twice: Once in the 2021 production Adventures by Keep Good Theatre, in which she seamlessly slip-slid between three roles without the aid of costume or prop; and once in a recent staging of Hannah Moscovitch’s early work Essay: A genius cast-against-type move that saw Kerr playing a wizened male professor who saw women students as little more than eye candy. (When I ask her how she prepares for a role, Kerr says it varies widely—but for Essay, “The physicality was absolutely mine. I was packing a pair of socks in my crotch.”)
“I feel this limitless sense when I'm in a creation project or in rehearsal. I feel like when we are all on the same project, same quest, asking the same questions, there's a massive power in that,” she says. “There are three shows that I did in the last few years that I have watched change lives.” The three in question helped a family discuss its repressed trauma (that’d be HEIST Live Art’s play Frequencies); her Toronto production of Secret Life of a Mother, written by Hannah Moscovitch with Kerr and Maev Beaty (“We got, like, dozens and dozens of pages of comments that came back to us after that, about women saying ‘I have never felt more seen by a piece of theatre’”); and Daughter, a play about toxic masculinity “that has no catharsis at the end: It's kind of no hope given. It reflects back on the audience, to say: ’It's up to you to go and make change in the world.’” She continues: “That show stirred up some shit, I'll tell you. To today, I'm idealistically a believer in how art can actually alter the way people think.”
Kerr makes a point several times over the course of the call to tell me how grateful she is to be considered for the Siminovitch, and the generosity of the donors who fund it: “This award recognizes innovation, and daring, and risk-taking and the spirit of invention. That there's an award for that is just fantastic,” she says with a laugh. She notes the winnings are shared between a theatre artist and a protege. (She says of the $100,000 purse, “75,000 goes to the laureate, 25 goes to a protege.”)
With that, it’s almost time for her to get back to her waiting students—the ones she finds endless inspiration in, sharing playlists with and mentoring past graduation day. “No matter how this plays out, I really truly believe that I will hold on to the truth of that: Like, nothing can really eclipse that feeling that the shortlist happened and I was on it.”
The winner of the 2022 Siminovitch Prize will be announced Dec. 1 at 9pm.