A workshop for 2021 Johannas protégé Margarita Valderrama's telenovela style play, One Perfect Day | Un día perfecto, dramaturgy and directed by 2021 Johannas winner Marilo Nuñez. Photo: Dahlia Katz
2021 Johannas Showcase

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since we gathered together to celebrate the 2021 Johannas winners and protégés. To commemorate the year, we asked each recipient three questions so you can learn about what they’ve been up to and what’s been on their minds.

  1. What’s a career highlight that stands out to you from the past year?
  2. What’s coming up that you would like others to know about?
  3. What’s keeping you up at night? What’s one thing you’ve been mulling over that you think should be on the radar for the arts and culture sector in 2023?

Here’s what they had to say.


Ian Cusson – Winner

1. Since winning the Johanna, I’ve been busy working on a number of projects. In March, we opened the opera, Of the Sea, commissioned by Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre, in partnership with TO Live and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra. This is a major work and an important cross-cultural partnership. Featuring a full Black cast, the work tells the story of Maduka, a father trapped under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage who goes to extraordinary lengths to give his baby daughter life on land again.


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2. There are several exciting projects in the works this year. In the fall, the Regina Symphony will present my orchestral song cycle, Songs From the House of Death, to poems by Joy Harjo with mezzo-soprano Marion Newman. L’Orchestre de l’Agora will present a new orchestration of my song cycle, Le Récital des Anges, with Elisabeth St-Gelais. The TSO will present a new chamber work, To Live, which is the culmination of a major partnership between the orchestra and CAMH’s Shkaabe Mawkwa Centre. Against the Grain Theatre and Edmonton Opera will give a workshop presentation of sections from a new opera, Indians on Vacation, with librettist Royce Vavrek based on the novel by Thomas King.

3. I’m hoping to see continued engagement with new and diverse voices in all spheres of the arts: from training and engagement initiatives to opportunities for large-scale and wide-reaching projects. The future of the arts is about diversification.

Beverley McKiver – Protégé of Ian Cusson

1. Touring with Jessica McMann (flute) and Karen Sheppard (violin/viola) has definitely been a career highlight. We performed for Cecilia Concerts in Halifax last June, then went on tour in British Columbia and Alberta in August. We finished up our tour by attending the third iteration of the Indigenous Classical Musicians Gathering at the Banff Centre. We performed at the YYC (Calgary) Music Awards in September, where Jessica was the winner in the Classical Recording of the Year category for Incandescent Tales.


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2. My commission for the RESOUND Choir in Durham Region had its premiere performance in March. “Song for a Little Baby,” my collaboration with Ottawa poet Wendy Duschenes, is included on an EP of recent commissions by RESOUND Choir and is available on digital platforms.

I am also working on a new commission for Ensemble ArtChoral which will be included on their upcoming ATMA Classique recording of 13 new works by Canadian women composers.

3. I’m heartened by the increasing visibility of BIPOC artists in the arts and culture sector. I would like to see those conversations and collaborations continue. I’m very grateful to the Metcalf Foundation for the prize, which has allowed me to continue my musical education. Removing barriers enables artists to continue their creative work, which enriches our society.

iskwē – Winner

1. I’m VERY excited to say that I released a new single in April called “I Get High” featuring Nina Hagen! This will be my first new release since the fall of 2019, which is making it feel extra special (and leaving me a little nervous, ha). I wrote and recorded this song with legendary producer Damian Taylor in Mexico City at Panoram Studio, and was honoured to work with an incredible team of musicians and engineers from across Mexico, Chile, the US, and Canada. While the tune is called “I Get High” AND was released on 4/20 (cheeky, I know), it isn’t just a song to spark up to. This piece was written in response to a painful experience of mine, where I wanted to remind people of the power of love and the importance of supporting each other in this lifetime, rather than trying to cancel each other out.


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2. Folks will need to stay tuned … there is some very exciting news to come later this summer!

3. Cancel culture, and how we respond to it as individuals, as community members, and institutionally.

Zeegwon “Zee” Shilling – Protégé of iskwē

1. A career highlight that stands out to me is having the privilege to perform alongside Digging Roots at the Montréal First Peoples’ Festival. I also had the opportunity to perform an original song at Nathan Phillips Square for the unveiling of the new Toronto sign created by Canadian-Indigenous artist Joseph Sagaj in recognition of UNESCO’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages. I am currently putting the finishing touches on my 16th original song demo!


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2. I’m planning to attend post-secondary school in Toronto for music production. I’ve been doing lots of acting and auditions. Last year, I began the process of signing with an Indigenous-owned record label and hope to release material in the near future.

3. As an artist I feel like there should be more opportunities for youth who want to learn and create with other artists — a place where you can feel comfortable to share your ideas and learn about the industry.

Ravi Jain – Winner

1. Premiering Mahabharata at the Shaw Festival. It has been a work in progress for over eight years and brought together an international team of about 30 people together to tell an ancient story. The audiences were amazing and the experience was the culmination of a long haul — a dream come true.


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2. My wife and I are expecting our second child, and Mahabharata will be on tour to a city near you … keep an eye or ear out.

3. I think there was a lot of push for major systemic changes three years ago … are we making good on those changes? Do we still have a fire to address inequity or are we just happy to be back at it? Tied to that, I worry about the increasing cost of living — and the inequity it creates in accessing arts.

Aaron Jan – Protégé of Ravi Jain

1. I directed a bunch of projects and workshops. Probably my favourite was Woking Phoenix, a show I’m co-directing with my collective that happened at Theatre Passe Muraille and will premiere in a future season.


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2. I’m directing a Theatre Direct show out in Peterborough in September — a world premiere of a new play with a cast of mostly high school students. It’s kind of nice to be working out of the city. I’m also deep in development for my musical (co-written by alaska b) with Musical Stage and numerous play projects that have premieres in the coming years.

3. Given the recent polarizing stuff that’s been going around online, I think it’s being more specific and intentional with online presence — who do we choose to engage with and the ramifications of that? What’s our responsibility to the public — who funds the art — but also with those who don’t want to have conversations and just want to yell at us? How do we approach bad faith people when they challenge us?

Sandra Laronde – Winner

1. There are two very different highlights that stand out for me. One is the wildly successful sold-out run of Red Sky Performance’s world premiere of Miigis: Underwater Panther at Canadian Stage, The Kennedy Center, and Montreal’s Danse Danse, among others. This new work that I choreographed and directed draws its inspiration from a prophecy in which the Anishinaabe must move from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. It’s about a formidable journey from salt to fresh water and speaks to the rise of matriarchy and the ancestral pull towards the next seven generations. I took a lot of creative risk with this new work and I couldn’t sleep for three nights before it opened. It unabashedly and bravely centres our narrative, opens the imaginations of audiences, and expands the Indigenous canon of Canada. It was nerve-wracking! I’m thrilled that audiences loved it and that the work received rave reviews including The Globe and Mail touting it as a “tour de force.”

Secondly, I wrote my first novel, She Holds Up the Stars, published by Annick Press last August. This was a huge feat. Whew. I’m so pleased that it received a Kirkus Star Review and was named one of the best Canadian books for kids and young adults of 2022 by CBC Books. I have very exciting plans for this novel in the near future.

2. I just returned from Edmonton where I received the 2023 Indspire Award for the Arts. This award is the highest honour that the national Indigenous community can bestow upon its own people — I am so grateful to join the Indspire laureate family.

I’m also creating and directing a film called Nimkaage: Dancing with Purpose, which is very exciting. Finally, Red Sky Performance is building a significant digital platform that will accelerate Indigenous resurgent content called Land Dances Us. It will involve film, animation, VO, graphics, and AI.

3. What keeps me up at night is how overwhelming everything is — there’s so much to do! I feel a profound urge to make something happen in this country. I feel this urgency deeply. What should be on the radar of the arts and culture sector is how the Indigenous canon of Canada can grow, expand, and be elevated in this country by Indigenous-led companies and Indigenous artists.

Aria Evans – Protégé of Sandra Laronde

1. I was selected by TO Live to be a part of their explorations initiative where I am working on a new solo show about the scars we choose, the scars that are accidents, and the scars that save our lives called Midline.


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2. I was awarded the 2023 Urjo Kareda Residency Grant at Tarragon Theatre and will be spending my time focusing on artistic leadership models while continuing to develop my solo work, Midline.

3. At the beginning of the year I was working as the movement director for The Birds, adapted and directed by Yvette Nolan, at the Stratford Festival with their conservatory, and one of the things Yvette speaks often about is how our actions create a lineage that stretches back to our ancestors and forward to our descendants. For me this ties into our impact and responsibilities and offers a really beautiful lens to live and work through.

Marilo Nuñez – Winner

1. Over the past year I have been focusing on completing my PhD work. I am happy to say I passed my comprehensive exams — I am ABD (all but dissertation) and an official PhD candidate!

I co-wrote an essay with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Anne Garcia-Romero (Northwestern University) for an upcoming book entitled Decentered Playwriting: Alternative Techniques for the Stage (Routledge Press). We wrote about the Maria Irene Fornés method of playwriting pedagogy and how it decentres the traditional methodologies of playwriting instruction at post-secondary universities and MFA programs.

I was co-editor with Dr. Marlis Schweitzer and Professor Jamie Robinson (York University) for an issue of Canadian Theatre Review called Casting in Canadian Theatre, where we examined the historical and present-day complications that arise when it comes to casting a play.

2. At this moment I am in the middle of writing a Theatre for Young Audiences play called Mapu, about deforestation and land conflicts in Chile which directly affect the Mapuche, the largest Indigenous population in Chile. The play will premiere in 2024-25 at Carousel Players. I will also begin development on a new stage adaptation of a Latin American novel with Puente Theatre, which I am very excited about. I have also been working with my Johannas protégé Margarita Valderrama, as director, on her play, One Perfect Day | Un día perfecto. We will be presenting a snippet/workshop of the play at Aluna Theatre’s Caminos Festival this September. I am working as director/dramaturge with Hamilton-based artist and musician Tor Lukasik-Foss on a new show.

3. I am deep into my PhD, so many of the questions I am asking about identity, writing, and race are top of mind right now. I am also thinking about how to rethink my relationship to my theatre training and how the Eurocentric foundation that I was given becomes complicated for me as a writer, teacher, and artist. How do we begin to rethink new ways of moving forward without completely eradicating the past?

Margarita Valderrama – Protégé of Marilo Nuñez

1. In June 2022, I produced a week long workshop of my telenovela style play, One Perfect Day | Un día perfecto, dramaturgy and directed by Marilo Nuñez. It was an important step forward in the development of this piece. We worked with an incredible group of artists and had great responses from our audience. Later in the fall I was also lucky enough to be part of the Stratford Festival’s Playwrights Retreat where I continued developing this project and started writing a new play.

2. I will be continuing development of One Perfect Day | Un día perfecto and I was accepted into the Reelword Emerging 20 (E20) program where I will be working on my first feature script, Eyes Open | Ojost Abiertos.

3. As we come out of three years where gathering together was difficult, how can I as a theatre artist invite audiences to participate in our storytelling? What am I enticing them with? In a time where entertainment is so easily accessible from our own homes, how can I make the experience so irresistible and accessible that gathering together once more feels essential and fulfilling? We all crave stories, but what is it about live storytelling that is indispensable?