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Rob Thomson is a freelance lighting designer for theatre, dance and opera. (Siminovitch Prize)

Montreal-based lighting designer Robert Thomson has won the 2012 Elinore & Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, the largest theatre award in Canada.

It is the 12th and final year for the prize, which asks winners to choose a protégé to share a prize pot of $100,000.

Thomson, currently working on a production of Red at Montreal’s Segal Centre, wins $75,000 and has chosen two young designers he works with to share an additional $25,000.

They are:

  • Jason Hand, a Toronto-based lighting designer who worked with Thomson at the Stratford Festival and  received a Dora nomination for his design of The Ugly One for Theatre Smash. 
  • Raha Javanfar a designer of lighting and projections for theatre, dance, art installation, and opera who will assist Thomson in his work on Red and who recently did projection design for Opera Atelier's Der Freischutz.

Thomson has worked with theatre, opera and dance during his 35-year career, including stints with the National Ballet of Canada, Shaw Festival and, for the past 12 years, the Stratford Festival. 

He designed Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline in the past year at Stratford, and will work on artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production of Merchant of Venice in the 2013 season.

Making a living as a designer

It’s a real challenge to make a living as a freelance designer, he says, because each job involves such as short commitment.

"As a lighting director, I work on a project for a month to a month and a half at a time. I’ve been seeking employment a month to a month and a half at a time my entire life," he told CBC News.

Earlier this year he was in Hartford, Conn., designing Jennifer Tarver’s revival of Hedda Gabbler and also in Regina, with a production of Billy Bishop Goes to War at the Globe Theatre. Thomson’s award-winning design for Robert Lepage's Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung has been seen across Canada and around the world.

Finding work is a matter of building relationships with dozens of other theatre professionals and their companies, he said.

"What I love about it is the challenge of tackling a new script or score, a new dance piece or collaboration with other designers and directors and in the rehearsal hall with the actors. It’s an intense creative process, but then you start over on something new."

Professional development

The $75,000 cash prize will help Thomson take a little extra time for professional development, as well as paying a few bills, he says.

He was chosen as winner over four other designers —  Alan Brodie, Richard Feren, Anick La Bissonière, and Richard Lacroix.

Thomson said it’s sad to see the end of the Siminovitch prize, which is awarded in alternating years to directors, playwrights and designers.

"It’s been most extraordinary for our community and it was the largest theatre award in the country, obviously. Unlike awards that celebrate performers it supports those of us behind – directors and playwrights who tend to be more visible in the creative process — and us designers as well," he said.

Why no more Siminovitch?

The Siminovitch Prize was always destined to end after 12 years – the founders started with a pot of $1.2 million and decided that for the prize to have impact, the award should be at least $100,000 annually.

The impact has been huge, says prize co-founder Joseph Rotman, arguing it helped raise the profile of theatre and creativity in Canada.

"The meaningfulness of having $75,000 for someone who is a specialist in lighting etc – it’s like two years salary for them. These people say ‘I now can do things that I could never have dreamed in my lifetime and here is what I’m going to do,’" said Rotman, who is also chair of the Canada Council.

"Then you have the mentorship issue and you have a kid who’s struggling to get paid at all. All of a sudden they get $25,000," he said, adding that it was very moving to hear what these people have to say when put on a public stage.  

The Siminovitch Prize was dedicated to Canadian  scientist Lou Siminovitch and his late wife Elinore, a playwright and was conceived as a way of linking creativity in the arts to creativity in the sciences, Rotman said.