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Ntlaka'pamux playwright Tara Beagan wins $100K Siminovitch Prize in Theatre

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Tara Beagan says receiving the Siminovitch Prize feels like a win for every Indigenous theatremaker who came before her.

The Calgary-based playwright was awarded the $100,000 Canadian theatre honour on Thursday for what jurors hailed as a "sublime and unbearable" style that makes her a singular figure in the dramatic arts.

But Beagan, who is Ntlaka'pamux and has Irish ancestry, said she shares the acclaim with the ancestors from whom she inherited the sacred tradition of Indigenous storytelling, allowing her to pass it on to the next generation.

"If we're in a position of where we have a platform to speak from, that's because there are people who have already cut that path for us," Beagan said in an interview earlier this week.

"It's acknowledging (who is) ahead of us and behind us, and realizing that it's really more of a circular existence."

This intergenerational philosophy shapes Beagan's work as the co-founder and director of the Indigenous-led arts company Article 11 based in Calgary.

The not-for-profit fosters collaborations between young artists and elders to produce contemporary theatre rooted in traditional ways of living.

A playwright, actor, director, dramaturge and producer, Beagan is currently the playwright-in-residence at Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange.

She served as the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto from 2011 to 2013, and has held residencies at the National Arts Centre and the Writers' Trust of Canada's Berton House.

Seven of her 32 plays are published, two of which earned nods at the Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Her 2020 play "Honour Beat" won the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for Drama.

As this year's Siminovitch Prize laureate, Beagan wins $75,000, and Joelle Peters of Walpole Island First Nation, selected as her protege, will receive $25,000.

"(Beagan's) vision is uncompromising, her voice is necessary, her trajectory embodies the deepest values of the Siminovitch Prize," jury chair Vanessa Porteous gushed in a statement. "This is quite simply excellent, searing, unforgettable theatre of the highest calibre."

Beagan said the prize money will offer a reprieve from the "culture of poverty" that plagues Canada's underfunded theatre scene.

Before colonization, the arts were considered a resource, said Beagan, and while Canada might not recognize their full value, Indigenous creators have kept this rich culture alive for hundreds of years.

"There's not always been an understanding beyond the Indigenous community of how much we have to offer, but we've always been certain of that, so we've nurtured that within each other," said Beagan.

"I think that that is a part of why the work coming from our own communities tends to be exciting and interdisciplinary and can't be kind of lumped in with one genre."

The Siminovitch Prize rotates on a three-year cycle, recognizing professionals in the alternating fields of design, direction and playwriting.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press