I only had the opportunity to encounter Gina Wilkinson once, when she was interviewed by Derek Boyes at Friday Night at the Young, just before the Opening of Wide Awake Hearts, which she directed, at Tarragon Theatre. At that time, she was on the move, making jokes about how she and her partner, Tom Rooney, supposedly had a home in Stratford, as apparently that is where they lived, but that she hadn’t had the time to live there yet. She was leaving the city for Winnipeg, before Wide Awake Hearts even opened, she said, to begin on her next project, The Seafarer at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. It was there that she fell ill and was diagnosed with Stage Four Cervical Cancer. She fought valiantly, but sadly she passed away on December 30th, 2010. She was only fifty years old.
In the remarkably brief time that we sat in the same room I was utterly mesmerized by Gina. As I said, Derek Boyes was interviewing her, or attempting to, but she kept turning the question on its heels or giving the most unsuspecting answer that the conversation completely derailed for a tantalizing moment before she seamlessly manoeuvred her way onto another topic, or segued back into her former thought. She struck me as being remarkably honest, so honest that I almost felt that it was a revelation to listen to her because she had absolutely no pretence. She wasn’t trying to butter you up, or to endear herself, to make the room feel comfortable or even to sell to you the play that she was working on, she was simply going to impart an opinion, with wit and razor sharp candour, and the room could take it for all it was worth. I found Gina utterly unique in this brief moment and refreshing. She wasn’t going to pussyfoot around the story; she was going to delve right in. Immediately I saw bravery, integrity and intelligence shining in her eyes. I wanted to listen to her speak far more than she did, I was on the edge of my seat, cursing myself for not transcribing the whole conversation, while trying to hold on to her every last syllable. There was a slight sardonic edge to her stories about the past, but one that was softened by how obvious it was that she loved her life and the work that she was getting to do in theatres across the country. She was also completely devoid of ego. In the briefest of time that I sat in her presence she made me laugh heartily and she made me want to get to know her better. Tragically, I won’t get that chance.
Gina Clare Wilkinson was born in Victoria, British Columbia the daughter of Marie, who ran a ballet school and Jack, a painter with an art studio. Like many young girls, Gina started her theatrical life in ballet, but switched to theatre when she was twelve years old. She began to take drama classes at the Norfolk House School and went on to graduate from the National Theatre School of Canada in 1979. She made her debut as an actor at the Stratford Festival in 1983. Throughout the years she worked steadfastly in theatres across the country including Tarragon Theatre, Canadian Stage, Factory Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, The National Arts Centre (Ottawa), Neptune Theatre (Halifax), Citadel Theatre (Edmonton), Theatre Calgary, Manitoba Theatre Centre (Winnipeg), The Globe (Regina), Vancouver Playhouse and The Belfry Theatre (Victoria).
Gina was also a playwright; she wrote and directed her first play My Mother’s Feet at Canadian Stage in 2005 and also directed it in Germany in 2008. Her other plays include Whistle Me Home (Summerworks) and Andersen’s Inkwell (Geordie Theatre, created with Micheline Chevrier.)
She began directing in 1997 in the Toronto Fringe Festival and went on to direct plays at the Belfry Theatre, The Grand, Theatre Aquarius, The Blyth Festival, Alberta Theatre Projects and even directed a production of Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet in Munich, Germany. Her breakout production is largely considered to be the 2009 smash-hit and critically acclaimed Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival, which she stepped into to replace an ailing Neil Munro. It was this production that made Wilkinson a most exciting and sought-after director for the last two years of her life. She returned to Shaw in 2010, directing J.M. Barrie’s Half an Hour and made her debut at Soulpepper, directing Faith Healer by Brian Friel.
The only production of Gina’s that I saw was Brendan Gall’s play Wide Awake Hearts, which she directed for the Tarragon Theatre last November. I found her direction to be, like her, richly distinctive, bright, and compelling, with unexpected twists. I remember feeling like I had happened upon an auteur as I left the Tarragon that night, and hers was a career that I looked forward to seeing continue to bloom. She was supposed to direct Shaw’s Candida for the Festival this coming summer, instead Tadeusz Bradecki will direct the show in memory of her. It makes my heart ache to see such a bright candle snuffed out far, far, far too soon.
Gina leaves behind her great love of eleven years, Tom Rooney, whom she married on December 19th, 2010 at the hospital, as well as her mother, Marie Wilkinson, brothers, Adam and Martin, and their children Dylan, Ryan, Sarah and Mathew.
Donations to help establish the Gina Wilkinson Award for Emerging Female Directors can be made payable to “Ontario Arts Foundation In memory of Gina Wilkinson ” and sent to the Ontario Arts Foundation, 151 Bloor St W, 5th floor, Toronto, ON, M5S 1T6, Attention: Alan Walker, Executive Director. 614824. There will also be a celebration of Gina’s life on Monday January 24th, 2011 at 3:00pm at the Jane Mallet Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street E). All are welcome to attend.