Over the past 20 years, Calgary has grown from a Podunk frontier town into a bustling cultural metropolis and the local theatre community has grown with it. Appropriately, Alberta Theatre Projects celebrates that growth with the Harry and Martha Cohen Award, given to those who have made a sustained and substantial contribution to theatre in Calgary.
"The award was set up by the Cohen family as a celebration of the 40th wedding anniversary of Harry and Martha Cohen, who are and were two great philanthropists in the Calgary theatre community," says ATP artistic director and 2001 winner Bob White. "They gave a lot of dough to the construction of what is now the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts and the theatre that we work in, the Martha Cohen Theatre, is named after one of them."
Established in 1985, the award winner receives a $1,400 cash prize and has their name inscribed on a scroll that hangs in the lobby of the Martha Cohen Theatre. Recent winners have included stage manager Dianne Goodman, playwright John Murrell, former Alberta Foundation for the Arts chairman Jock Osler and actresses Clarice Evans and Valerie Ann Pearson. White believes that the award is integral to recognizing the evolution of the Calgary theatre scene.
"An awful lot of people were sort of toiling in the wilderness over many, many years," notes White. "Now that the theatre community is as vital as it is, there're lots of people who have made major contributions and it's just great to see this kind of celebration of some of those people that helped build it all."
With a thriving industry chock full of talent, White notes that the jury faces a yearly challenge in choosing just one. He believes the open-ended nature of the award ensures that no matter who gets chosen, a deserving individual will always be honoured.
"One of the things about the award is that it can include anybody," White says. "It could be an actor, an educator, someone who's worked as a volunteer, a technician, right across the board. As time passes, you're looking at a bunch of people who have made significant contributions, so it's a bit of a struggle for the jury every year to select one."
As a former Cohen Award recipient, White has a unique perspective on the whole process. He shares that while it's nice to be rewarded, he's not in it for the allocades.
"It's going to sound like a cliche, but the work itself is enough of a reward." White reflects, "But to realize that people in the community think that it merits special attention is quite cool."