Interview with Tom Rooney,
Gina Wilkinson Prize for an Emerging
Gina Wilkinson was a prolific stage, film and television actor, playwright and theatre director. After her passing at the end of 2010, her husband and best friend, Tom Rooney, decided to establish an award to encourage female theatre directors.
In the little over a year since the award was established, it has already attracted over $35,000 in donations. How have you been driving that?
Individual donations ―$25, $250, $500 ―have poured in from all across Canada, mostly from within the theatre community, and mostly from people who knew Gina. She was an incredibly generous and inspiring woman, loved and respected by many; her death was a huge shock and a great loss to the theatre community . The idea of having an award that would keep her name in rehearsal halls and theatres is a way to celebrate this amazing person who had been so important to so many people.
We had a gathering at a close friend’s house in Stratford; a little under 100 people showed up and we raised approximately $10,000. It’s really been Gina doing the work . . . her memory, her name and the generosity she showed in her life. People want to make sure that this award is healthy and alive and that keeps going for years to come.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the Ontario Arts Foundation; I was thrilled and amazed to discover an institution that’s sole purpose was to assist in establishing and maintaining awards and scholarships. It’s wonderful that this kind of organization exists, especially in the arts, where there are not a lot of resources. I haven’t had to worry about the administrative side of the award at all.
How did you decide what kind of an award to establish?
Gina had spent most of her career as an actor, but in the last five or six years of her life, she transitioned into directing. She loved collaborating with people and people loved collaborating with her. She had an innate ability to tell a story, along with a great visual sense; she loved working with lighting designers, set designers, costume designers. Her skills as a director were noticed by Artistic Directors across the country and, thankfully, they gave her opportunities to direct in their theatres and to hone her skills.
I thought that an award that would go towards an emerging female director would be useful within the theatre community, while at the same time honouring Gina and her career. So this prize is for a woman who, like Gina, has spent part of her career doing something other than directing― not necessarily acting, but perhaps stage managing or theatre administration or playwrighting―but who is now attempting to transition into more of a directing role. As any aspiring director can tell you, this can be a difficult transition to make because of the scarcity of directing jobs.
We have a committee of six people, including Jackie Maxwell of the Shaw Festival who gave Gina an opportunity to direct at the Festival (Gina had her breakout hit Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival about three years ago). The other committee members are Micheline Chevrier, Bonnie Green, Eda Holmes, Bob White and myself. Gina worked everywhere, with many people,–Victoria (her home town), Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Stratford, Halifax, the Blyth Festival- so it was important that this be a national prize.
Right now the recipient receives a $1,000 . And we hope the award will also give the recipient a certain of recognition within the theatre community. We’d like the award to continue to grow so that in future years we’ll be able to increase the dollar amount ..
We also decided to publish a shortlist of three nominees.. We’ve had 23 nominations, which, I think, is fantastic in our first year.
As far as how the $1,000 is to be used, we want it to go towards whatever the recipient wants: it doesn’t have to be career-related. I think Gina would be very happy if it were spent on, say, a case of red wine, for example. It’s just a way of saying, here’s a thousand dollars, we think you’re doing great, keep going.
How did you know to approach the Ontario Arts Foundation?
When Tim Sims passed away, Lindsay Leese,Gina’s best friend, established a comedy award in his memory with the foundation. When I decided to create an award in Gina’s name, she said that the Ontario Arts Foundation was a perfect place to get help in establishing the award and setting up a long-term fund.
The Ontario Arts Foundation gives the award legitimacy and recognition. When people donate, they can feel confident that their money is going somewhere safe and that it is being taken care of financially: the fund is growing and there are professionals managing it properly. Alan Walker has been truly amazing in helping us establish this award; his knowledge along with his generous support and encouragement have been invaluable.
What kinds of fundraising events might you do in the future?
There’s something about the small, intimate, grassroots kind of event that I really like. So maybe we’ll get together at someone’s house, or rent a lounge or bar where people can come together and remember Gina and help out with the award.
Her birthday is March 10th and that’s the date we plan on announcing the name of the recipient each year. March 1st is when we’ll announce the shortlist of three nominees.